The probe into the Australian Workers Union’s donation to GetUp has spectacularly backfired on the government, with a senior staffer of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash forced to quit after tipping off the media about the police raids.
Cash told a Senate committee on Wednesday night her senior media adviser had informed her during the dinner break that he had spoken to journalists on Tuesday, after hearing of the imminent raids on AWU offices from “a media source”.
Earlier, Cash had denied multiple times that she or her office had alerted the media, who were at the AWU offices even before the police arrived.
Her admission – which sparked fiery exchanges at the Senate committee – came after BuzzFeed reported it had confirmed with journalists that the information to media outlets had come from Cash’s office.
Cash told the Senate estimates hearing the tip-off was without her knowledge. She did not name the staff member, who is David De Garis.
Asked whether he had been sacked, Cash said he had walked in stating he was resigning, and then given his reasons.
Hours earlier De Garis had been present when Cash met Malcolm Turnbull.
The opposition rejected Cash’s account and has called for her resignation. Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke told the House of Representatives: “The wrong person has resigned.
“There needs to be a resignation here because it defies credulity that senator Cash gave false information five times to the Senate and her staff said nothing.”
Cash triggered the probe – being done by the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) – into the 2005 donation, made when Shorten was union secretary. Shorten was one of the founding directors of GetUp.
The ROC, which was established after legislation for it formed part of the 2016 double-dissolution election, launched the investigation when Cash referred the donation matter to it in a letter dated August 15.
She cited reporting in The Australian raising questions about the approval process for the donation. Both Shorten’s office and the AWU said the donation had been endorsed by the union’s national executive.
What is at issue is whether the GetUp donation was properly approved within the rules of the union.
Also, separately, under ROC scrutiny are some other donations to Labor candidates – including A$25,000 to Shorten’s 2007 election campaign.
The issues involve the civil rather than the criminal law.
The warrants for the police raids on the union’s Sydney and Melbourne offices were issued after the ROC cited information which it said “raised reasonable grounds for suspecting that documents relevant to this investigation … may be being interfered with”.
ROC commissioner Mark Bielecki, also appearing at the estimates hearing, said in an opening statement that he wanted to correct a misapprehension.
“This investigation is not into Mr Shorten. It is into the AWU’s processes for donations, including political donations,” he said.
He reiterated that the ROC had been concerned that evidence was being concealed or destroyed.
The allegation came from a caller, but ROC officials were not prepared to be drawn further.
Bielecki rejected the suggestion that the ROC could have simply asked for the documents, as the union has said. Given the circumstances this would not have been appropriate, he said.
He said the ROC in August had asked for the relevant documents and the AWU had declined, through its lawyers, to make all the documents available.
It is not clear who was De Garis’ “media source”. ROC executive director Chris Enright said the ROC’s media officer, who has been with the organisation only two weeks, had not been in touch with Cash’s office and knew no-one there.
The AWU has launched court action claiming the warrants and the investigation were invalid. This action is on hold until Friday.
The AWU’s lawyer, Josh Bornstein, said on Wednesday that the warrant and the use of 32 federal police was “a disgraceful overreach”. “We are talking here about paperwork,” he said.
Turnbull said Shorten “has questions to answer – why his union was making $100,000 donation to GetUp”, an organisation opposed to industries that employed members of the AWU.
Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon said: “This is like Nazi Germany – it’s the state moving against political opponents”.
The Senate estimates hearing will continue on Thursday morning.