Senate Estimates: what to watch for

Yesterday was... a big day in Australian politics. One government staffer has resigned and the opposition are clearly after a few more scalps, including that of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Most of this went down in the Senate Education & Employment Committee's budget estimates hearing (a mouthful) today.

That hearing was meant to finish yesterday, but has now been extended for a special two hour session this morning in light of, well, everything. Often in these dramas it's hard to keep track of what's happening, what issues are live, what's been dealt with, and what was just confusion in the midst of the action. So here's a short summary of where things stand and what to watch for in the continuation hearing this morning. (You can watch it here between 9.00 and 11.00am.)

The background: the Registered Organisations Commission, a regulator for unions and employer associations, is conducting an investigation into various donations made by the Australian Workers Union when Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, was its head. On Tuesday afternoon, the Australian Federal Police raided AWU offices in Melbourne and Sydney to seize documents relating to this investigation. Media, including TV crews, were at the offices in advance, having been tipped off that the raids were occurring.

The Labor opposition think, and have been angrily arguing, that this investigation is being conducted unusually aggressively as a way of smearing its leader. The crossbench, or at least the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, seem to agree. At the base of this, Labor and the AWU think that there was no wrongdoing and so that the whole investigation is trumped up. But beyond that, there are two specific questions they're pressing about the way it's being carried out:
  • Why did the ROC get a search warrant and direct the federal police to execute it, rather than simply requesting the relevant documents from the AWU?
  • How and why were media aware of the imminent raids before anyone at the AWU was?
Certain answers to either question could have explosive consequences. For example, if the minister's office told the ROC to get documents through a raid rather than some more low-profile method, for political effect, that would spell trouble for both Minister Cash and senior ROC officials. And whoever was responsible for tipping off media to the raids, or was aware that was going to happen, will almost certainly have to resign. But at the end of yesterday's hearing, for all the sound and fury, we don't actually know the answer to either of those questions.

Here's what we do know. On the first question, the ROC's position - the commissioner Mark Bielecki and executive director Chris Enright were testifying in the hearing yesterday - is a little slippery. There was some suggestion that the AWU had failed to hand over the documents when asked in August, but well-connected journalists suggested that no formal notice to produce them was ever issued. Later in the hearing Enright confirmed that the AWU has always complied with notices to produce that the ROC has issued them.

The remaining explanation is that the ROC received a phone call telling them that some of the relevant documents were being destroyed. Nobody would provide any details of this call: both witnesses declined even to say whether the caller had identified themselves, and later denied characterising the call as a "tip-off" that documents were being destroyed. So who knows. The ROC witnesses also declined to answer a question about whether they'd chosen to conduct a raid because of a letter from Minister Cash suggesting they should investigate the donations using whatever means necessary.

The AWU is challenging the raid in federal court on grounds related to these: that it was unnecessary and that no other means of obtaining the documents had been tried. It's relatively unlikely we'll find out more about this today, because both ROC officials said they wouldn't be answering questions about matters related to that court case. (The Labor senators were not very impressed with this, so they'll probably have another go anyway.)

Second question: who leaked? Michaelia Cash told the hearing five times that nobody in her office had alerted any media about the raids. This turned out not to be true: after a Buzzfeed report yesterday evening, it came out that Cash's assistant media adviser had given several outlets advance warning that the raids were occurring.

That's far from the end of the story, because nobody in the minister's office should even have known that. Cash's story is that her adviser found out from... a media outlet, and then passed the information to several others, but not to the minister herself. Nobody is very impressed by that answer, but the questions basically ran into a dead end because Cash said she hadn't had time to speak with her staff to clarify what had happened. This will definitely be a major line of questions today: did anyone else in the ministerial office know about the raids, and if so, what did they do with that information?

The leaking question was also being pursued yesterday from the other end, since knowledge of the raids shouldn't really have gone beyond the ROC and the AFP. The target Labor were settling on last night was Fair Work Ombudsman media officer Mark Lee, who worked (with Cash's assistant media adviser, according to Labor senators) for former Victorian Liberal Premier Denis Napthine. The Fair Work Ombudsman is a different organisation, but Lee apparently fills in and provides assistance to the ROC when necessary. The ROC initially told the hearing that Lee would likely have been aware of the raids. Then they backtracked; Enright said he was confident that Lee hadn't been told, and that his original answer had meant that Lee would have been aware of the raids after they occurred. (Anyone who watches the news, of course, was aware of the raids after they occurred, so you can see where the Labor senators with doubts about this changed answer are coming from.)

This issue is still very murky. According to the ROC even their own media officer didn't learn about the raids until about twenty minutes beforehand. If that's true, that person can't be the leaker, because the call from Cash's office to media (let alone the call to Cash's office from whoever the leaker actually is) apparently occurred around forty minutes before that. So again, who knows. But Labor will be expecting the ROC witnesses to have spoken to everyone involved by this morning and so will be pressing these questions about who knew of the raids, and whether Mark Lee could have found out in advance. (Labor's Doug Cameron also wanted to bring the Fair Work Ombudsman back before the hearing; we don't currently know whether that's going to happen.)

So to sum up the whole debacle: Labor want to know why there was a raid at all, and why media knew about it. They're unlikely to get an answer on the first point today, but will be asking about it, and if the ROC officials say anything other than that they can't answer, those responses will be very important.

The second issue was obscured yesterday by various people not being in possession of all the facts about what people in their offices knew and said at various times. There's really no reason they won't know those facts by this morning, so expect a lot of detailed questions about when information about the raids was passed to different people and who they shared it with. And there's almost no way this can end well: if the leak originated in the ROC or the Fair Work Ombudsman that's very likely a sackable offence for a public servant, and if it originated in the ministerial office then Cash is on the hook for (further) misleading the Senate and for using independent regulators and police for a very explicit smear campaign against the opposition leader.

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