The AFP is investigating theft, not leaking – Let’s get real about the NBN & AFP – EFTM
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The AFP is investigating theft, not leaking – Let’s get real about the NBN & AFP

time to stop the conspiracies and politics here

There is a painful truth to be learned in the midst of these NBN driven AFP raids regarding leaks coming from the NBN to Labor party officials and or the media – leaking isn’t something that gets rewarded, and frankly nor should it unless lives depend on it perhaps?

Plenty of my peers in the media won’t like what I have to say here, and I get that, but I am coming at this from a very different perspective. I’m coming at this as someone who has held senior executive positions in both private and government enterprise.  I also come at this from the perspective of someone who just wants an NBN built, I’m sick to bleeding death of the political football that it is and that which has caused extraordinary delays in a vital piece of national infrastructure.

Buckle up, this could go a while. #LongReads #LongRants

I’ve made my view clear only recently that we need to stop using the NBN as a policy trading card, the format, funding and strategy for the NBN should now be fixed and the corporate big-wigs in charge of the NBN should be held to account for their best and most recent public delivery schedule which has 9.5 million homes timetabled for construction of their NBN over the next two and a half years.

These AFP raids come after what appears to be several months of investigations by our Federal Police.  They didn’t get a call from the NBN and go running to the offices of Senator Conroy.  They’ve been working on their investigations.

Let’s have a look at what we know – as fact, rather than the assumptions, conjecture, opinion and politicisation of this story that has occurred over the last 48 hours.

  • The AFP commissioner has confirmed their investigation was launched after an approach from NBN Co regarding the leaks.
  • The AFP commissioner has confirmed that the AFP had no contact with either the Government or the Opposition in the course of their investigation over recent months.
  • In fact, the AFP commissioner only alerted the Government and the Opposition on the afternoon of the raids on Thursday.
  • Communications Minister Mitch Fifield confirmed this weekend he was made away by NBN co that they had asked the AFP to investigate the leaks.
  • Bill Shorten confirmed he was contacted at 5pm on Thursday (having missed a call an hour earlier) by the AFP Commissioner to advise of the raids.
  • Several staff at the NBN were interviewed by the AFP on Thursday in the course of their investigations.
  • The documents that were seized in the raids were placed under “Parliamentary Privilege” a short time after they were taken from the offices/homes that were raided.
  • An NBN staffer accompanied the AFP on the raids
  • The NBN Staffer took photos of the documents and sent via email/text on the night of the raids
  • The NBN staffer was at all times supported and had their actions monitored by an AFP agent.

It seems the last few points have raised the most conspiracy style eyebrows of late.  So lets look at that.

That NBN Staffer on the raids

Could the AFP have surely known exactly what they were looking for when raiding the offices/homes on Thursday night.  No.  That’s why an NBN staffer (as is normal in cases like this) attended with the AFP.

Could that NBN staffer have been able to identify 100% every document required?  Unlikely.  It’s for this reason they were allowed to disseminate those images of the files to verify the documents.

Did that NBN staffer likely see other documents in the course of the raid.  Yes, but with the AFP by their side – do we really believe they were taking photos of some yet to be announced Labor policy on NBN – please, shuffle off and write your 9/11 conspiracy blog mate.

Has the AFP been acting independently?

Then comes the concept of the AFP acting independently.  I find it difficult to hear people who want to assert that our law enforcement agencies say “how high” when a politician says “jump”. It’s ridiculous.  The very fact the raids occurred during an election campaign are proof enough of this in my view.  This raid isn’t fantastic news for either Labor or the Government.

What does Malcolm Turnbull gain from these raids?  The NBN becomes a headline again – pretty sure he doesn’t want that given the long drawn out conversation about construction, delivery, cost and technology over many many years.

Likewise Bill Shorten, sure he’s politicising the hell out of it right now, but I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of up-side for him either.

Why is it we can’t take the word of the AFP Commissioner?  He stood in front of the media the day after the raids and flat-out denied that he had spoken to either party during their investigation, in fact he had only called them in the late afternoon leading up to the raids.

So who leaked to the media that the raids were happening?

On Friday a lot of talk began about just how it was possible for the media to be present at the raids, surely someone from the AFP leaked the timing of the raids?

This one needs deeper investigation, and once again, the AFP Commissioner confirmed his integrity unit would be investigating this very claim – yep, there will be a leak investigation into a leak investigation – very deep stuff.

But, they’re only investigating because of the speculation, there’s no proof other than the presence of the media.  I think what people fail to understand here is that the presence of one media outlet will cause their opposition media outlet to be up in arms about missing the scoop.  It’s the media causing the speculation about their own competition.

Did anyone stop to think for a minute – hmmm, who knew about these raids.  Yep, the AFP knew.  But the news of the raids broke late into the evening – around 9pm give or take.

That’s a full five hours after the AFP notified Bill Shorten, and we can only assume though I haven’t heard the time confirmed, that it was a similar or longer period time after the Government was informed.

And yes, in both camps that would have set the cat amongst the pigeons.  People frantically calling around trying to work out “what the hell is going on” and work out what it means for their media cycle strategy for the next 24 hours or more.

Possible much that the leak came from one of the two sides of politics – not the AFP?  Possible.  No, Likely.  Canberra leaks like  a sieve – come on.

The Prime Minister didn’t know?

Sure, politicians lie about all manner of things during an election campaign.  How much funding is going here, what they’ll do to help there, etc etc.

But do you really think that if Malcolm Turnbull knew about the AFP investigation before Thursday he would be able to lie about it over the weekend?  No.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield confirmed that he was aware the NBN had advised him – as their Minister – they had referred the matter to the AFP.  He knew the NBN was fed up with the leaks, he knew they had referred it to the AFP – and he chose not to share that information with his colleagues or the Prime Minister.

I think that’s outstanding.  If he tells other ministers or the Prime Minister, doesn’t that put the AFP investigation at risk by potentially alerting other people to the investigation and risking that getting out, and therefore potentially turning the AFP investigation into a public event?

The very fact the AFP has had months to investigate without interference is perfectly proper.

Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t.

Just to prove the point that this whole story has already been highly politicised just days after it broke, consider the opposite view of each and every theory or outrage.

The Prime Minister Should have Known – He didn’t know, and is getting all the headlines because he didn’t know.  So now imagine he did know – The headlines, and the Opposition media line would be that he knew all along and his grubby hands are all over this flawed investigation.

Mitch Fifield Should have told the PM – He didn’t, because he chose to let the AFP process take it’s course.  Now imagine he did tell the PM.  And the PM admitted that today.  The story would be that he was the puppet master of the investigation and it is a Labor witch hunt.

The AFP Should have advised both parties sooner – They didn’t.  But imagine they did.  Now the story is what information or documents were destroyed prior to the raids, what influence either side – particularly the Government had on the process.

The timing of the raids were directed by the Government – Right in the middle of an election campaign, not good for Labor right?  Well now imagine the raids happened on the 10th July, AFTER the election.  Everyone would be claiming a cover-up.  Flip that coin folks

NBN Staffer should not have taken photos – They did.  And the AFP have stated the did, and shared them under full supervision from an AFP officer at all times.  Let’s say they didn’t.  They would still have had to make calls to their office and confirm this document and that were part of the complaint.  Potentially making the raids a longer process.  If the NBN staffer took photos of NBN documents and shared them with NBN, who cares.  If they took a photo of a Labor party policy document the AFP officer would have stopped them.  Come on.

In the Public Interest

In reality though, that’s all smoke and mirrors.  That’s all the political gamesmanship that will now drag on for ages and ages.  What really matters here is the leaking of documents.

There are some who are calling the NBN Staffers who leaked the documents heroes. Nope.  They are idiots.  And as time rolls on they could very well face criminal charges.

Yep, behind all those puff and uproar is a potential crime. The NBN is a commercial organisation. They are also in the middle of spending billions of taxpayers funds all of which has to be done so through a rigorous process of tenders and quotes.

So just for a moment wonder what might be inside these documents that were “leaked” from NBN.  Some forecast figures, some timelines, some budgets.  I doubt they leaked a single powerpoint presentation.  I think the NBN likely called the AFP because they knew – through hearing the constant barrage of questioning from Senator Conroy at Estimates – that he has information from certain documents.  And perhaps those documents contain a whole lot more commercially sensitive information than should exist outside of NBN Co.

Do we want someone who is in the process of tendering to the NBN Co for some work to have access to information that other bidders don’t?  Do we want potential bidders to have information that might allow them to see what the NBN Co was forecasting as costs, and thus increase their bid – in turn increasing the cost of NBN for us the taxpayer?  No.

I’ve watched a lot of Senate Estimates.  Senator Conroy spends most of his time harking back to the good old days of Fibre to the Home, and the Forecasts and delivery timelines of the previous NBN.  Projecting delays and cost changes against the current plan.  Pointless really given we basically tore up a company and started it over again.

I think it was August of 2015 that the NBN released its corporate plan which showed peak funding of $49 billion.  Completion in 2020.  The documents stolen (not leaked, stolen) from NBN don’t show any change to that.  So the idea of a “public interest” test is fanciful.

We have, as I’ve stated before, a comprehensive roll-out timetable.  My suburb is on it, yours is too.  9.5 million homes have a timeline for construction.  Senate Estimates rarely reference that.

The NBN Co might be a government “agency” but they are a commercial business.  Involved in commercial contract negotiations worth millions or billions of dollars. I for one want them getting the best price, I don’t want some potential bidder having inside running via leaked information.

Like any commercial organisation, the NBN has a right to protect its information, in law there is a duty to report suspected theft of property to the authority.

This “leak” is theft. Sorry to say it, someone is in a world of trouble.  I know plenty of people at the NBN, and I hope it’s none of them because this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.

If someone who worked for me at any of the organisations I’ve worked at was found to be sending documents (electronically or otherwise) outside the organisation it would be warning 1, 2 and 3 you’re out.

Just because this is a Government agency doesn’t make it ok.  The NBN has a responsibility to report its activities just like any other public company, and it also has to face Senate Estimates regularly where any and all questions can be asked.  But information that is commercially sensitive doesn’t get shared until after the risk of influence on cost is over.

Don’t we need Whistleblowers?

I’m not anti-whistleblower.  But let’s just be cautious where we throw that word around ok?

By definition – a Whistle-blower is “a person who informs on a person or organization regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity.

If you want to suggest that the NBN is acting unlawfully, go for you life – but that’s ridiculous.  If you think there’s something immoral about infrastructure timelines and costing being in question, then maybe.

But let’s get real.  This is the case of one or two people at an organisation that was forced to pivot 180 degrees in strategy (after a change in government).  Those people are frustrated that the NBN could and should be a different NBN (FttH) and they have been doing everything in their power to feed information to the Opposition that doesn’t benefit anyone other than the Opposition grandstanding at Senate Estimates or in policy making.

If the NBN had been deliberately inflating the costs of the contracts they were awarding to ensure the contracts were won by businesses close to the directors of NBN or perhaps NBN staff were getting kick-backs from the awarding of contracts to specific parties – THAT is the kind of thing we need whistle-blowing about.  But it’s not.

This is theft, this is stolen property, and the NBN have every right to refer it to the AFP, and the AFP have every right to quietly investigate then raid when their investigation warrants it.

Anything else is just politics and conspiracy theories.

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Trevor produces two of the most popular technology podcasts in Australia, Your Tech Life and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He has a weekly radio show on 2UE, as well as appearances across the country and regularly provides Technology Commentary to Channel 9’s Today Show and A Current Affair. Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave. Like this post? Buy Trev a drink!
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