By David Crowe, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 27th November 2019.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of interfering in a police investigation into Energy Minister Angus Taylor amid a political storm over his judgement in telephoning the NSW police commissioner about the matter.
Mr Morrison insisted he had done nothing wrong in calling police commissioner Mick Fuller to check on the investigation, but he stumbled in Parliament by wrongly quoting a Victorian detective on a separate investigation.
In a rowdy debate in Parliament, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese demanded Mr Morrison admit his mistake while the Prime Minister wrote a letter admitting the quote he attributed to the detective had come instead from radio host Ben Fordham.
Labor accused Mr Morrison of trying to influence the police findings about his minister after the Prime Minister told Parliament he had made the call to Mr Fuller to discuss the “substance” of the investigation.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull raised the political heat by declaring he would not have made the phone call because the matter had to be “entirely free of political influence” and seen to be so.
Barrister Geoffrey Watson said Mr Morrison should not have made the call because it looked like he had sought a “favour” from the police chief.
“There’s nothing illegal about contacting the police but on the other hand, once you put it into perspective, it should never have happened,” said Mr Watson, a director of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former counsel assisting at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
“What the Prime Minister should not have done is used his position in executive government to contact an external bureaucrat because it just looks like he’s applying pressure.
“It’s just an inappropriate move rather than an illegal move.”
Mr Watson made no criticism of the police commissioner, who he said was placed in a difficult position in a phone call that appeared to ask a favour in the treatment of the investigation.
“It can’t be anything else – it must be a favour because why else would he be calling?” he said.
Mr Morrison argued on Wednesday he had been right to phone the commissioner because he had told Parliament on Tuesday he would seek advice from the NSW police on the investigation into Mr Taylor.
“I made it very clear I was speaking to the police about these matters. I said I would. No objection was made by those opposite,” Mr Morrison said during Question Time.
“On the next day, they have sought to trump up something else.”
In a rebuff to Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister said “only those in possession of all of the facts” could make any real judgement about his phone call.
Labor called on the government to release a transcript of the phone call to prove there was nothing untoward, but it appeared Mr Morrison made the call to the commissioner’s mobile without any note-taker involved.
Mr Fuller said the Prime Minister had tried to call him three times on Tuesday but he had not picked up because he did not recognise the number.
“The PM didn’t ask me any questions that were inappropriate, he didn’t ask for anything that was inappropriate, and I’m comfortable with the discussion that we had that went over a few minutes,” Mr Fuller told reporters.
Mr Morrison sought to justify his decision to stand by Mr Taylor by citing previous cases where politicians had kept their jobs while under investigation.
Under fire in question time, the Prime Minister revived the dispute over Julia Gillard’s conduct as a lawyer for the Australian Workers’ Union by quoting a detective at the Victorian fraud squad saying in 2013 that Ms Gillard was “under investigation by police”.
Mr Morrison acknowledged hours later that this was wrong.
“For the record of the House, I am advised that this quotation was in fact from journalist Ben Fordham reporting on the investigation,” Mr Morrison said in a letter tabled in Parliament.
Mr Albanese demanded an explanation for the mistake.
“This scandal just keeps getting deeper,” Mr Albanese said.
“This was a prepared statement by the Prime Minister today where he put the words of Ben Fordham into the mouth of a Victorian police officer.”
Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus wrote to the NSW Police last month asking for an investigation into the Angus Taylor matter, arguing that using a forgery to influence an elected representative was a breach of the NSW Crimes Act.
The formation of Strike Force Garrad was revealed on Tuesday.
Mr Taylor insisted in Parliament last month he relied on a document downloaded from the City of Sydney website when he claimed the council spent $15.9 million on travel for its councillors when the real costs were less than $6,000.
The City of Sydney dismissed his assertion by citing the metadata from its website to insist its statutory report had shown the smaller figure and had not been changed online.
The computer records have left Mr Taylor exposed to claims that his office relied upon a false document, its creator unknown, to put public pressure on Ms Moore on climate change policy by sending the false information to the media.
Mr Albanese has called on Mr Morrison to require Mr Taylor to stand aside while the investigation is under way, citing the ministerial code of conduct, updated in August 2018.
Clause 7.1 of the code says “ministers must accept that it is for the prime minister to decide whether and when a minister should stand aside” if the minister becomes the subject of an official investigation of alleged illegal or improper conduct.
Clause 7.2 says ministers will be required to stand aside if charged with any criminal offence, or if the prime minister regards their conduct as constituting a prima facie breach of the standards. They are required to resign if convicted of a criminal offence.