Labor has asked the Australian Federal Police to urgently investigate a $350,000 job offer Scott Morrison’s right-hand man Scott Briggs made to the man who was set to roll Liberal MP Craig Kelly for preselection in his seat of Hughes.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Thursday that Mr Briggs had offered Sutherland Shire councillor Kent Johns a $350,000 job for six months’ work as the Liberals’ federal campaign director in NSW, on the understanding he would withdraw from the contest against Mr Kelly.
That campaign role would normally be part of state director Chris Stone’s position, although the party wants to bring in additional firepower because of the back-to-back NSW and federal elections.
Labor senator Don Farrell, the shadow special minister of state, wrote to AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin on Friday asking him to investigate the matter “to protect the integrity of our democracy”, arguing the job offer could be considered a bribe.
Section 326 of the Electoral Act prohibits bribery to influence a person’s vote or candidature.
Earlier on Friday, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said he believed an offence may have been committed.
“If those reports are true then potentially there may have been offences committed under the Australian Electoral Act,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“Mr Morrison must immediately state all that he knew of this matter and everything that’s known should be disclosed to the public.”
However, Anne Twomey, a constitutional expert at Sydney University who also researches electoral law, was not convinced the act covered preselections.
“It is unclear whether electoral bribery laws would extend to internal party preselection matters, as this is a step away from candidature at an election,” she said.
Cr Johns – a former Labor mayor turned vice-president of the NSW Liberal Party – had the numbers to roll Mr Kelly as the Liberal candidate in Hughes.
He refused the offers made to him, but Mr Kelly was ultimately saved by an intervention from Mr Morrison to ensure all sitting MPs were re-endorsed.
A spokesman for Mr Morrison did not answer questions on Friday afternoon. It is understood Mr Briggs told Cr Johns the job offer had been approved by the Prime Minister and other senior Liberals.
A spokesman for the Australian Electoral Commission did not respond before deadline.
Because Cr Johns is a councillor in NSW, it is possible for the issue to be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, though there is no guarantee the ICAC would investigate the matter.
Mr Kelly said he was previously unaware of the offer that was made to Cr Johns, and had no further comment.
The preselection showdown boiled over in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year amid speculation Mr Kelly would follow former Liberal MP Julia Banks and defect to the crossbench if he lost preselection.
Mr Morrison told Parliament Mr Kelly “never” threatened to quit the Coalition – but in his pleas with Cr Johns, Mr Briggs acknowledged Mr Kelly could “bring down the government” if he did not get his way, and that Mr Kelly “holds the power”.
Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House