'Vector of influence': Labor grills officials about QAnon family friend of Scott Morrison

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have not briefed Scott Morrison on the QAnon conspiracy theory following the FBI’s decision to identify the group as a potential domestic terror threat, and say they are unaware that Twitter has suspended the account of a family friend of the prime minister.

Labor asked a series of questions in Senate estimates on Tuesday after Twitter confirmed it permanently suspended a QAnon account belonging to a family friend of the prime minister’s for “engaging in coordinated harmful activity”.

Before the suspension, the owner of the account, Tim Stewart, shared content associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory to his tens of thousands of followers. Stewart’s wife works at Kirribilli House.

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, said she wanted to pursue a line of questioning because it was in the public interest to ensure there was no “vector of influence” with Morrison given the “dangerous” suppositions of the “fringe conspiracy movement”, and the FBI’s concerns.

Related: Twitter permanently suspends QAnon account belonging to friend of Australian PM for 'harmful activity'

“It’s about transparency,” Wong said.

The department’s deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, told the hearing the only association the department had with the issue Wong was prosecuting was to “assist with the employment of a staff member for Kirribilli House”.

Foster said all appropriate checks were undertaken to ensure the appointment was suitable, “including the relevant police checks”.

“That was our responsibility, and we felt we had executed that responsibility appropriately,” she said. “I’m not sure there is a broader role the department can take with this issue.”

Another departmental official said all three staff employed at the prime minister’s Sydney residence had security clearances.

Wong asked Foster whether the department was aware that the Twitter account had been suspended. “I was not aware of that senator,” Foster replied.

Labor’s Senate leader observed this was curious, given the ban had been reported by both Guardian Australia and News Corp, and “you do a fair bit of media monitoring”.

“I do find that surprising,” Wong said.

Foster responded: “Were it not for the fact that, um, the gentleman’s spouse was employed at Kirribilli, I’m not sure that we would have any, um, association with this issue at all.”

She said officials had “tried to restrict our activities” to the employee.

Related: How QAnon spread to Australia and spilled out into real life

The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, expressed concern about Wong’s line of questioning.

He said he was unaware of Morrison’s personal relationships, but told Wong it was unreasonable to reflect on the employee “because of what may or may not be the views of her husband”.

“The only thing I’m aware of is the woman has been employed,” Cormann said. He said the evidence from the departmental officials was she complied with all the appropriate tests.

Wong said the friendship with the prime minister was on the public record, and had not been refuted.

Lachlan Colquhoun, the first assistant secretary in PMC’s national security division, said it was possible that Asio had briefed Morrison after the FBI’s negative assessment, but the department had not. “We have not briefed the prime minister,” he said.

Wong asked Colquhoun whether he was aware that QAnon’s theories extended to the belief that there was a “cabal of Satan worshipping paedophiles whose activities extend to trafficking children through a secret labyrinth of tunnels under Melbourne and Sydney”.

The official nodded in response.