When Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw took over the agency, he promised a new era of transparency.
“If it’s going to get out, we might as well be the ones actually saying it,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in late 2019, referring to the increasingly long delays to access documents under freedom of information laws.
Back then, the AFP was mired in controversy over raids on multiple media outlets and the nation’s new top law enforcer was keen to project a transparency-trumps-all approach.
But what Kershaw might not have been aware of at the time was this: his agency had already begun what would turn into a more than three-year legal fight to block the release of a single-page document.
Five months earlier, Nine News and this masthead had applied to obtain a letter the AFP sent then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton regarding Nationals MP George Christensen’s activities in the Philippines. When Kershaw made his promise to him, the AFP had already issued its first rejection.
The AFP firstly opposed the release of the letter on privacy grounds, arguing it would be an unreasonable disclosure of Christensen’s personal information.
After the matter was appealed to the information commissioner, the AFP added more arguments on national security grounds. The police agency contended that releasing the letter would have a “substantial adverse effect” on its operations by compromising the “provision of frank and candid briefings to the minister of home affairs in relation to sensitive matters”.
The matter was further delayed by Christensen making three separate submissions arguing against the letter’s disclosure.
The long-running fight to obtain the document ended this week, when the AFP was forced to release the document after a ruling by the information commissioner found its disclosure was in the public interest.
In the letter sent to the then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton on June 25, 2018, the AFP said a police probe into Christensen’s frequent travel to the region had found no evidence of criminal conduct but the politician had “engaged in activities” that put him at risk of being compromised by foreign interests.
The stonewalling by the AFP has opened itself up to accusations that it was trying to serve the then-Coalition government, rather than acting as the cops on the beat.
Sydney barrister Geoffrey Watson, SC, a former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, says: “I can’t impute bad or political motives to the AFP, but that’s the practical effect of what they did.”
Watson says the three-year delay to release the letter is “scandalous” and “appalling” because now there is a new Labor government and Christensen is out of federal parliament.
He says he understands the AFP’s privacy arguments, even if they were outweighed by the public interest, but the agency’s national security arguments were “specious” and “baseless”.
“I found it laughable to think that it could have some effect on AFP operations.”
Asked why it fought the request for the document for so long, the AFP says it “respects the decision of the Information Commission and has released the document to the applicant”.
Christensen, who was privately dubbed the “Member for Manila” by colleagues, took at least 28 trips to the Philippines, spending almost 300 days in the country, between 2014 and 2018.
He would wander the streets of Angeles City – an urbanized area more than 80km from the capital Manila known for its red light district – in a Hawaiian-style shirt, board shorts and thongs, buying giant teddy bears and chocolates for women in the bars.
One of his favorite bars was Ponytails, which advertised itself as an “adult entertainment service” employing 100 female dancers and 50 female wait staff.
According to Marjorie Lamsen, the manager of the Ponytails, Christensen was a “very regular visitor” at the venue.
“He was always very good… He was a big spender,” Lamsen said in late 2019.
“The weakness of George is women. He would usually give allowances to these people … He would keep his job from him a secret but now we know he’s a politician.
It is here he would meet his wife, April, in early 2017. He would tell Queensland’s Courier Mail that a friend had introduced them at a “small karaoke” bar and his “singing talents obviously impressed her”.
Christensen has long denied any wrongdoing in relation to his activity in South East Asia, pointing to the fact that federal police never found any evidence of criminality.
He has previously claimed he spent so much time in the country to be with his now wife, but he made 19 trips – totaling 205 days – in the country before he ever met her.
Alarm bells started ringing for federal police officers in early 2017, when Christensen’s regular trips to the Philippines and Thailand started catching their attention.
The AFP then became aware of multiple aliases Facebook pages Christensen appeared to be using to communicate with people in the Philippines. Officers were also concerned about payments Christensen was making to women in the country.
Christensen went to great lengths to normalize his trips. He would often fly straight to Manila from Canberra at the end of sitting weeks. He was, after all, chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of the Philippines. He would tell colleagues he visited regularly to do charity work for orphanages.
The Queenslander would holiday there over Christmas and New Year only to fly home and be seen in the electorate on Australia Day, or Anzac Day – post an image on Facebook before flying back.
On September 7, then-AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin briefed the country’s most senior bureaucrat, Martin Parkinson, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, on the matter. Parkinson advised Colvin he should brief then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was subsequently provided six briefings over the course of the next year.
Colvin told Turnbull that the Philippines police were aware of the concerns and that this raised the possibility Christensen could be questioned in Manila on an upcoming trip.
“Colvin described how Christensen had an unusually complex online presence and had been spending substantial sums in Manila bars and nightclubs as well as making many small payments to women there,” Turnbull writes in his memoir, A Bigger Picture.
“Against the advice of our embassy in the Philippines, he had been staying in seedy hotels in Angeles City, which was not only recklessly unsafe but made him vulnerable to being compromised.”
Over the coming months, then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, his successor Michael McCormack and Dutton were also all provided briefings on the police probe.
At some point during this time, there was a growing concern by some people within the government and the AFP that Christensen had been tipped off about the police probe.
Watson says if this did occur, it would be “disgraceful conduct” on behalf of the politicians.
“They engaged in briefings and it seemed to have been leaked to Christensen,” Watson says. “If you can’t trust senior politicians not to leak this information for political advantage then the country is in a woeful place.”
On May 24, 2018, the AFP met with Christensen and told him of their concerns that he could be compromised, including by foreign intelligence services. A month later, they sent the letter to Dutton, Turnbull and McCormack closing the case but warning of the ongoing risk.
Watson says it appeared the AFP were pursuing two different avenues: the allegation of criminal conduct, which was found to have no basis, and the national security concerns of Christensen being potentially compromised.
“Having investigated the criminal aspect and found nothing… I cannot understand why it wouldn’t be escalated if there was a risk, or why it wasn’t transferred to [counter-espionage agency] ASIO or why it just seemed to fall away to nothing.”
He also points out the AFP later raised national security grounds in the FOI process, despite dropping the inquiry into security concerns.
“The AFP was raising national security in relation to a matter they appeared not to pursue. How does that work out?
Anthony Whealy, QC, chair of the Center for Public Integrity and a former Court of Appeal judge, says national security is an important concern but too often it is thrown up as a “cloak to avoid a situation”.
“This example of the AFP letter is a classic example of a completely artificial claim for national security protection,” he says.