Tudge pressuring staffer not to reveal affair may have been a criminal offence: Labor

Labor says cabinet minister Alan Tudge may have committed a criminal offence by trying to persuade his former staffer Rachelle Miller not to declare their personal relationship when she was renewing her top secret security clearance, warning it could have played into the hands of foreign spies.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed last month that Tudge questioned Miller’s intention to declare to the agency they had been in a personal relationship in a series of WhatsApp messages as well as over the phone.

Ex-Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller and Alan Tudge.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The messages do not appear to have been canvassed in a review by former senior public servant Vivienne Thom, which found there was insufficient evidence to prove Miller’s allegations that during their affair she was bullied, emotionally abused and once kicked by Tudge. Mr Tudge has denied the allegations and Ms Miller did not participate in the review.

After the investigation into the affair, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement last month that Tudge wouldn’t be returning to the front bench for the current term of parliament but in comments that raised eyebrows on the day he called the election, the prime minister said: “Alan Tudge is still in my cabinet”.

This was the first time Morrison had held a press conference in Canberra since March 1, and the first time he had been questioned about Tudge’s political future since the Thom review was released on March 4.

Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said Tudge’s reported attempt to encourage Miller to withhold information from national security agencies was “extremely concerning” and raised “significant questions” for Morrison.

“Reports that Mr Tudge encouraged a member of staff to withhold pertinent information on their security vetting are a serious national security matter. Mr Morrison must act. He should refer Mr Tudge to the AFP for a proper investigation, including into possible criminality,” she said.

“If these reports are accurate, Mr Tudge would have clearly violated the Ministerial Standards,” Keneally said. “He may have also committed an offence under the Australian Criminal Code.”

Under the Criminal Code, it is an offence to incite someone to give false or misleading information to a Commonwealth entity.

She called on Morrison to rule out Tudge returning to the ministry and explain why he should remain in parliament.

“Encouraging another person to withhold information from national security agencies as part of a vetting process undermines our national security and safety,” she said.

“While ASIO is warning that the biggest threat to Australia is foreign interference and espionage, such conduct risks playing straight into the hands of our adversaries by encouraging a person to withhold the very information national security agencies need to protect Australia against these threats.”

Tudge did not respond to a request for comment. But in response to questions about whether the minister had potentially breached the criminal code, the ministerial standards and whether Thom had been aware of the texts, a government spokesperson said “Mr Tudge remains stood down from his position. He is not receiving a ministerial salary”.

“As he submitted to the inquiry conducted by Dr Vivienne Thom, Mr Tudge did not consider himself to be in a relationship with Ms Miller. Mr Tudge has not met with Ms Miller in any capacity since 2017,” the spokesperson said.

The government cleared the way for Tudge to be restored to cabinet after the election on the basis the Department of Finance has offered to settle a complaint brought by Miller over her treatment while an adviser, worth a reported $500,000.

The Saturday Paper reported Miller had accused another senior Liberal MP of sexually harassing her during the settlement process over the Tudge matter.

On Sunday, Morrison was asked about Miller stating she released all parties from any confidentiality requirements of the settlement.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would “honour the process” of the Finance Department.Credit:James Brickwood

“This process is confidential and has been put in place by the Department of Finance … I think that is the way these matters should be handled and I intend to honour the process that has been established independently, by public officials, about how sensitive matters of this nature should be handled,” he said.

When asked why he wouldn’t release detail about taxpayer money paid out “perhaps concerning the conduct of a government minister and their office,” Morrison replied: “If there was any matter that was, in the assessment by the Department of Finance, that involved the conduct of any Minister whatsoever in the granting of that payment then that matter would have to be raised with me. I can assure you absolutely that no such reference has been made to me”.

In the texts, Miller wrote to Tudge on March 5, 2018, and said: “I’m sorry, I need to talk to you about something urgent regarding an update to my NV2 [Negative Vetting 2, the second-highest level] security clearance which I have to do. Can you pls call?”

She later wrote: “I have to send through via email marked sensitive personal to a secure inbox a form which discloses a change in personal relationships. I am stating ‘Personal intimate relationship with Alan Tudge MP commenced 7 June 2017’.”

Tudge then wrote back in a series of messages sent within 18 minutes: “Why?”

“And it is not accurate.”

Miller then sent: “Ok, you tell me what is accurate? You are so good at denying this to yourself you’ve convinced yourself it didn’t happen!” and “I am sending this email.”

Tudge replied: “Why? You should at least put it in the past tense” and “You are opening a large can of worms.”

Four hours later, Miller wrote that she had sent the form and declared “extra-marital affair last half of 2017 with unidentified male who did not deserve me”.

Tudge also urged Ms Miller not to disclose the relationship during a phone conversation around the same time.

Negative Vetting 2 allows political staff and public servants access to classified resources up to and including the Top Secret rating. It is the second-highest security clearance rating and to obtain this clearance, candidates have to provide a wealth of personal information about their family and financial circumstances, overseas travel history, criminal history and more.

Having an extramarital affair would not preclude someone from receiving security clearance but the withholding of information – which could be grounds for someone to be blackmailed – is problematic and could be an offence.

Miller ended up declaring the affair with Tudge, and in a series of messages over March 7 and March 8, tried to organise a time with Tudge to speak because she had been asked by the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency for more information.

“It’s not my fault Alan! AGSVA have come back to me for more details. I now know better than to ask you to see me just because we might want to,” she wrote.

Tudge replied: “You know I can’t, Rachelle. Cant see anyone anymore. #hermit #monk #boringasbatshit.”

At 9.44am on March 8, Miller confirmed she was handing over the details.

“I’m also giving AGSVA your name, DOB and place of birth. I have been specifically asked for this information. I cannot do anything else. I am sorry,” she said.

At 10.26 am, Tudge said: “I am free in about five mins.”

Miller sent through a document and the minister replied: “Ok. Pls qualify it. ‘In the past’. Etc. V dangerous for both of us. This leaks and Labor will pursue relentlessly your new role with MC [Michaelia Cash]. All over.”

Miller responded: “Why do I always feel like you are threatening me?”

“I don’t mean to. Just being brutally frank about the risks. I am sorry,” Tudge responded.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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