Australian federal police have arrested and charged a 32-year-old Blacktown man in relation to a campaign of disinformation emails targeting Labor’s Eden-Monaro candidate, Kristy McBain.
In a statement, the police announced on Friday that after executing a search warrant at the man’s house, he had been charged with one count of allegedly using a telecommunications service to menace, harass or cause offence contrary to the commonwealth criminal code.
The dramatic conclusion of the byelection campaign ahead of Saturday’s poll comes as a uComms poll suggests Labor leads 52% to 48%, and Anthony Albanese expressed confidence that Labor are favourites because the Coalition’s vote has dropped since the 2019 election.
The AFP statement said the emails “appeared to be from legitimate sources, being sent from an unidentified user to the Australian community and various organisations”.
“The emails were assessed as offensive and harassing in nature.”
Among other false claims about her family, the emails claimed that McBain had pulled out of the contest.
“The AFP investigation identified the use of a number of telecommunications services subscribed using suspected fraudulent identification documents,” it said.
“Investigators will allege in court that these activities were linked to the 32-year-old man.”
The man was released on police bail and is due to appear before the Blacktown local court on 2 September. The AFP investigation is ongoing.
The false material was assessed by the Electoral Integrity Assurance taskforce and referred by the taskforce and the Australian Electoral Commission for police investigation on 10 June.
McBain is locked in a contest against Liberal Fiona Kotvojs, who is vying to become the first government member in 100 years to win a byelection seat from the opposition.
Kotvojs has disavowed the emails targeting McBain, arguing on Thursday that while leaflets targeting McBain’s record as Bega mayor including rates increases were fair game, genuine disinformation should play no part in the campaign.
On Friday, Albanese told reporters in Narooma that Eden-Monaro needed someone who will “speak up for them” not “someone who will just sit there and give a tick to the government”.
Albanese drew a contrast with Morrison – who took a holiday in Hawaii during the summer bushfire season – by stating he had “been welcomed back here – because I was in bushfire affected communities each and every day when they were going through that very difficult period”.
Morrison, Albanese said, “hasn’t visited Cobargo, he hasn’t visited Narooma, he hasn’t visited Merimbula”.
Albanese praised McBain, who he said was “the best new candidate I’ve seen in a federal or state campaign in my time in politics”.
Asked if Morrison’s sky-high popularity due to the response to Covid-19 could boost the Liberal candidate, Albanese replied: “Well have a look at the polls – there isn’t a poll that has the LNP vote as high as it was at the last federal election, in any of the polls that have been published this year.”
The uncharacteristically unguarded statement shows Labor believes it is favourite to win on Saturday, despite the uComms poll showing Labor’s 52 to 48 lead is within the 4% margin of error.
Kotvojs has faced destabilisation by the Nationals in the dying days of the campaign, with the New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, contradicting Kotvojs and Scott Morrison on ABC cuts and refusing to rule out he will run for the seat at the next election.
McBain declined to weigh into whether Barilaro’s interventions in the campaign suggest he is preparing to run at the next election, which would require Kotvojs to lose so there is no Liberal incumbent blocking his run.
“I’m focused 100% on winning this election in 20 … 20, God it’s 2020,” she said.
McBain said she had travelled 9,000km and spoken to thousands of people and none had raised controversies surrounding Labor MPs in New South Wales and Victoria, because “it doesn’t have an impact on their daily lives”.
Voters were concerned about the prospect of jobkeeper wage subsidies ending in September and inadequate clean-up after the bushfires, she said.
On Thursday Morrison made his final pitch at a press conference in Hume, on the ACT border with Queanbeyan, telling reporters that to “vote for stability” and “vote for jobs” residents of Eden-Monaro needed to elect Kotvojs.
“As we help the timber industry get back on its feet, as we help the orcharding industry … the tourism and hospitality sector … all of that depends on having someone who can be part of a government that is getting on with the job of delivering the jobs,” he said.