Michaelia Cash has been accused of showing “no shame” for refusing to speak to police about the leak to media from her office of raids on the Australian Workers’ Union headquarters.
The Labor senator Penny Wong made the accusation after two gruelling Senate estimates sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday revealed that Cash’s legal representation in the AWU’s federal court case has cost taxpayers $289,000 while the Registered Organisations Commission has incurred $550,000.
Cash refused to apologise for not answering police questions despite prosecutors saying lack of evidence was behind the decision not to press charges. Cash even demanded an apology from Labor senators.
On 25 October 2017 Cash, then employment minister, was forced to correct her evidence to Senate estimates, in which she claimed the leak had not come from her office, when her senior media adviser, David De Garis, admitted that he had tipped the media off about the imminent federal police raids on the AWU headquarters.
Last week, De Garis gave evidence to the federal court that he had learned of the raids from Cash’s former chief of staff Ben Davies, who in turn said he learned of the raids from the Registered Organisations Commission’s stand-in media adviser, Mark Lee, while the pair made arrangements for Lee to take a new job in Cash’s office.
The court case also drew then justice minister Michael Keenan’s office into the controversy, when De Garis said he worked with Keenan’s former media adviser, Michael Tetlow, to tell the media about the raids.
On Wednesday Cash refused to comment on the revelations or further correct her evidence, claiming she could not verify them without a “certified transcript” of the court proceedings.
The Labor senator, Doug Cameron, asked if Cash was aware of the alleged “criminal leaking” from her office. In response, Cash repeated her evidence to the federal court on Friday that she “had no prior knowledge of the raids, of the execution of warrants”.
On Tuesday evening Cash said that on “numerous occasions” Wong and other Labor senators had suggested she had prior knowledge of the raids, and said she is “waiting for an apology”.
Cash objected to Cameron’s “loose language”, noting that the police investigation had been closed and there are no criminal proceedings afoot.
On Tuesday the commonwealth director of public prosecutions gave evidence it had not proceeded with charges, not because it didn’t believe a crime had been committed but because of a lack of evidence.
On Monday the AFP said they had formed the view while investigating the leaks that evidence “may have been destroyed”. In court hearings last week De Garis said he had deleted three text messages he exchanged with a colleague in Keenan’s office about the raids before handing in his phone.
Labor senators quizzed the small business minister about evidence from the Australian federal police to Senate estimates on Monday that Cash and Keenan twice declined to be interviewed and although both provided written material, neither had given a “witness statement”.
Cash said the AFP asked her to provide a statement five months after the raids. She responded that her “best recollection” was contained in her contemporaneous account to estimates in October 2017, so she provided the police a copy of Hansard which she variously described as “a statement” and “a voluntary statement”.
“At no time after the statement was provided … did the AFP ask further questions or say it was in any way insufficient,” she said.
Senator Derryn Hinch criticised Cash’s evidence, suggesting it “sounds like a round robin” because Cash had told Senate estimates that she couldn’t answer questions because the AWU raid leak matter is before the courts and told police she had given her evidence to Senate estimates.
Cash responded that she had “actually answered copious questions” in Senate estimates, although she has repeatedly invoked public interest immunity to deflect questions since the matter was referred to police on 27 October 2017.
Cash went on the counter-attack, reminding Senate estimates on Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon that police raided the AWU because they were investigating whether the union had proper authorisation when it made a $100,000 donation to GetUp and a $25,000 donation to Bill Shorten in 2005.
The Registered Organisation Commission initiated the investigation after a letter from Cash, but the minister has denied referring the matter to damage Shorten.
On Wednesday, department officials told estimates that the attorney general had approved taxpayer funding for Cash’s costs in the AWU federal court case, in which the union aims to show the raids were unlawful. So far, Cash’s legal bills have cost taxpayers $288,812.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Wong said that Cash’s evidence was “quite extraordinary”.
Wong said she is “deeply offended” that members of ministerial staff could “try and utilise the instruments of state to pursue a political opponent”.
“That she could turn up to estimates and simply try and again turn this into some political attack – [displaying] no shame… is extraordinary.”