AFP raids: Turnbull’s undoing or a non-event?


A corner of the internet went into meltdown last week when the Australian Federal Police raided the office of a federal Labor politician and a staffer’s home as part of an investigation into a series of leaks from the Government’s NBN Co.

It was the confluence of progressive concerns that whipped up the social media frenzy. Not only did the raid dramatically pit the physically intrusive powers of the surveillance state against the high morals of an apparent whistleblower, it was a reminder that Malcolm Turnbull had snatched away the dream of fibre-optic cable to every Australian home when he was Tony Abbott’s communication minister.

The moral outrage was further leavened by the reminder that the leaks had exposed the hollowness of Turnbull’s “fast, affordable and sooner” broadband alternative. Turnbull had not only cancelled the order for Australia’s broadband pony, but it turned out the perfectly serviceable rocking horse he had proffered instead was actually an expensive but nevertheless poorly cobbled-together hobby-horse.

Even so, Turnbull might have been forgiven for this apparently heinous crime if he had delivered on other progressive issues once becoming Prime Minister. But no, the PM also disappointingly squibbed on gay marriage, the Republic, climate action and asylum seekers.

Today’s Newspoll shows the extent of voters’ disappointment. The Coalition’s primary vote has dropped from 46 to 41 per cent since the beginning of the year, while Labor’s has increased two percentage points to 36 per cent. After the hypothetical allocation of preferences, this gives Labor a 51-49 lead for the third fortnight in a row.

More alarmingly, Turnbull’s net approval rating has dropped 50 percentage points from the peak of +38 in late November last year. Newspoll says it is now -12 per cent. Meanwhile, Shorten has improved from a low of -38 per cent in early December to match Turnbull at -12.

As for the everyday voter, who at this stage is barely paying attention to the election, do they care about the raid or whether the PM knew in advance?

The precipitous state of the PM’s drop in approval ratings suggests increasingly restive progressive voters are seriously considering bringing Turnbull to account come election time. His failure to deliver the NBN is on the list of crimes.

Accordingly, at least in these progressives’ eyes, the AFP raid quickly became less about the state’s intrusion on civil liberties and more about whether the former communications minister knew about it.

In reality, it matters little whether Turnbull knew about the AFP’s investigation into the leaks, or that the raid would take place when it did. It would matter if the Prime Minister directed the AFP to search an Opposition MP’s office during an election campaign; however, there is no evidence that any such direction was made or that the federal police would accept such an order.

Labor has nevertheless implied the PM’s fingerprints are all over the raid by claiming NBN Co, which asked the AFP to investigate the leaks, is a government entity and therefore at the Government’s command.

In saying this, the Opposition gives the impression NBN Co should not investigate the leaks because the leaked information was in the public interest.

This of course assumes the motivations of leakers are always pure. But as we have seen with others who have made private information public, ostensibly for the public good, there may be other motivations at play that the public should also know about.

In the case of Treasury official Godwin Grech, only by investigating a leak did it become clear he had fabricated information against then PM Kevin Rudd, which was then used by Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull to wrongly accuse Kevin Rudd of misleading parliament.

And then there is former adviser to the Speaker, James Ashby, who allegedly provided excerpts from Peter Slipper’s diary to Mal Brough. The AFP investigation of this leak may also demonstrate that the partisan settling of scores can be a key factor behind political leaks.

It’s just not as black and white as the champions of the NBN leaks would like to have us think.

As for the everyday voter, who at this stage is barely paying attention to the election, do they care about the raid or whether the PM knew in advance?

Most likely not: the NBN doesn’t rate as an influential election issue, and the community is cynical about politicians at the best of times.

In one recent poll, only 17 per cent of voters rate our elected representatives as ethical and honest. In another, only 39 per cent of voters said they found Turnbull more honest than most politicians, compared with 26 per cent who made that assessment of Shorten.

So despite progressives’ gasps of shock and horror about the raid, and demands that the PM ‘fess up to his role, many voters would have been left nonplussed.

It may have been seen by the left as a jack-booted attempt by Turnbull to suppress the truth, but most voters would have seen the event as just another skirmish among the disreputable, about an issue that wasn’t particularly important.