Bill Shorten’s ‘dirt unit’ secretly orchestrated the downfall of Speaker Bronwyn Bishop in the Choppergate scandal and the demise of former Health Minister Sussan Ley by leaking a dossier of travel records to newspaper outlets to engineer a political crisis.
Leaked emails have laid bare the political research unit’s success in triggering two of the biggest scandals to rock the Abbott and Turnbull government, which weakened Tony Abbott’s leadership and also sparked a major review of travel rules.
But the research unit also examined Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s use of au pairs to care for his children, and former High Court judge Dyson Heydon’s appearance at a Liberal Party fundraiser. They were revelations that prompted calls for his resignation from the royal commission into unions.
The emails are revealed in a new book, Party Animals, examining the Labor Party’s seven wilderness years in Opposition and the 2019 election loss.
- Read a sneak preview of the book in this special report
The book reveals that for six years, Mr Shorten’s office was running one of the most methodical, relentless and successful investigative journalism units in Australia.
But rather than journalists, it was political staffers who prepared the material, which also targeted Mr Di Natale’s payment of au pairs and the man who led the royal commission into unions, Dyson Heydon.
The Labor staffer who spotted Ms Bishop’s helicopter ride to Geelong was Ben Foster.
After Ms Bishop lost her preselection and left Parliament, Mr Foster posed standing next to Ms Bishop’s official photograph as Speaker in Parliament House, raising his eyebrows and clutching a box of champagne.
After examining the parliamentary travel records for VIP flights, Mr Foster saw her $5000 trip from Melbourne to Geelong and it struck him immediately as unusual.
He emailed the office at 6.46pm on Thursday, June 25, 2015 in correspondence titled: Subject: Bronnie got a charter from Melbourne to GEELONG.
Ryan Liddell, Mr Shorten’s press secretary, who later became his chief of staff replied, “That is ripe for the papers thank you very much.”
The morning after the first story was published, Andrew Moore, a Labor staffer in the media unit, sent around the clips of ‘Hair Force One’ to outbreaks of spontaneous joy in the office.
‘Yarn going off on Herald Sun Facebook page and website!’ Shawn Lambert emailed.
‘Real good gear,’ said Mr Foster, who was most admiring of the sub-editor’s headline.
Another veteran journalist turned Labor staffer Stephen Spencer, who had run the media unit under Simon Crean’s leadership but now worked for Penny Wong, trawled Twitter for evidence of Ms Bishop’s trip to Geelong.
He found it, spotting photographs of Bishop’s arrival at the golf course in a helicopter.
Treasurer Joe Hockey would later admit it ‘didn’t pass the sniff test’, an extravagant 75-kilometre journey helicopter ride for a distance that thousands of daily commuters would complete in their cars.
It was the first of many quiet successes for the Shorten office, which helped to topple Mr Abbott and build a mythology within Labor that played into a growing sense of invincibility before the 2019 election.
In 2016, Labor turned its attention to the Greens.
They discovered Mr Di Natale had failed for more than a year to declare the family farm in Victoria’s Otway Ranges.
A staffer in Anthony Albanese’s office, Mat Jose, then googled the maiden name of Di Natale’s wife, Lucy Quarterman.
What came up was an ad of her searching for an au pair.
It suggested the family was paying an au pair just $150 a week, including free rent and board.
Sharing the love with Fairfax this time around, the research was provided to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
The stories distressed Mr Di Natale and his wife.
The next big hit was then health minister Sussan Ley in the summer of 2017.
After a freedom of information request revealed Ms Ley had spent $12,000 to charter a VIP jet to the Gold Coast for an afternoon meeting at the Pharmacy Guild conference, the Labor Party again swung into action.
Mr Shorten’s office had a paid subscription to RP Data, a property data firm that provides access to ownership data across Australia.
The office had requested an RP Data subscription after the debacle involving former Victorian Labor frontbencher David Feeney failing to disclose a $2 million investment property in Northcote, which he claimed he’d forgotten he owned.
ALP secretary George Wright had signed off on the subscription, which cost several thousand dollars, to ensure the Labor Party knew what houses its MPs owned.
Simply by punching ‘Sussan Penelope Ley’ into the database, the fact she had bought a property on the Gold Coast immediately came up, including the sale date.
The Labor Party then examined her travel records to discover if she was on any taxpayer-funded flights on the day she bought the property.
By lunchtime on January 3, Shorten’s press secretary Sarah Michael was emailing a Herald Sun journalist, breaking down the extensive findings of the research.
‘RP Data records show Sussan Ley bought a property on Main Beach in Queensland on 9 May 2015,’ she wrote. ‘On 9 May 2015 she claimed travel allowance for her and her husband in Main Beach, Queensland under the guise of “minister – official business”.’
The total cost to fly her and her husband to buy the property was $3949.15.
Labor’s dossier on Ms Ley ran to 27 pages.
The dossier, obtained by The New Daily, forensically breaks down the travel allowance she had claimed including every flight she had taken to the Gold Coast and her COMCAR usage on those days.
Later in the day, Mr Shorten’s office discussed whether to provide a comment from a Labor spokesman in the story.
“This story will splash across all the states,” a staffer wrote.
“Front pages all round so well done! One caveat they just got word which could be bull that a prominent AFL star may have overdosed in hospital in which case they’ll hold coz they want it on the front page. If it’s not true it’ll run tomorrow in the Tele, courier, Hun [Herald Sun] etc on the front page.”
Gerard Richardson, Mr Shorten’s senior press secretary, again stressed the importance of no Labor quotes in the first story so it didn’t look like an ALP stitch-up.
“Let’s leave it, but word up Keogh for tomorrow,” he said.
Ms Ley confirmed to the Herald Sun the property was bought during the trip, which she declared was for “official business”.
In March, the findings of the inquiry concluded she had breached the rules just once.
The sole breach was using a COMCAR to take her from her hotel to the $800,000 apartment she bought, a five-minute journey.
Claims she broke the rules by visiting the Gold Coast on New Year’s Eve and piloting a plane were dismissed on the grounds she could prove official business on those days.
“I simply table the outcome of the investigation, as I said I would, and in doing so allow people to draw their own conclusions,” Ms Ley told Parliament. ‘Regardless of these facts, the public impression was cast.”
Liberal Party dirt unit strikes back
Research units gathering damaging material on political enemies are hardly the domain of Labor alone.
During the federal campaign, the Liberal Party’s negative research unit effectively weaponised Mr Shorten’s attendance at the wedding of Chinese donor Huang Xiangmo by sending photographs and video to journalists.
John Macgowan, a former Liberal staffer seconded to the unit, reveals in Party Animals it was the Liberal Party that obtained the video of Mr Shorten at the wedding.
“Remember, right at the beginning of the campaign, that donation scandal was sparking off?” Mr Macgowan said.
“That night, we had video on TV of Huang Xiangmo’s wedding with Shorten sitting there.”
Where did they obtain the damning vision?
Mr Macgowan confirms it was from all the other Liberals who attended.
“There was a whole table of Liberals there,’ he laughs.
“Stuff like that, we were trying to do that every day.
“The real fights happen down on the ground, but you don’t want people turning on the 6pm news seeing your guy getting smashed.”
Mr Macgowan also confirmed his involvement with the leak of the NSW Labor leader Michael Daley video where he complained about Asians taking young Australians’ jobs.
“Our young children will flee and who are they being replaced with? They are being replaced by young people from typically Asia with PhDs,” Mr Daley said in the video.
The leaked video destroyed Labor’s campaign in the March 2019 state election.
It was filmed by an out-of-work journalist Daniel Pizarro, who never received a cent for the footage.
“One of the kids in one of the ministers’ offices – I don’t know how he found it, but he made a meme,” Macgowan said.
“I rang him up and said, “How the f–k did you find that?” We found it when it had 40 views [on YouTube].”
The video was taken down before it was leaked with devastating effect during the NSW state election.
Party Animals by Samantha Maiden (Viking) is out on Tuesday