Safety threats to politicians spark 39 Australian federal police investigations related to election

Federal police conducted 39 investigations under a special taskforce related to the federal election, with numerous politicians and political candidates the target of threats, menacing phone calls and social media harassment.

Police laid one set of charges over threats to the former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, while police are still making inquiries around a further 22 matters that are ongoing.

Operation Wilmot, a major incident coordination operation from the Australian Federal Police, was set up in March ahead of May’s federal election. The AFP said it aimed to “ensure the security of high-office holders and parliamentarians during the 2022 federal election”, utilising hundreds of investigators, intelligence officers and close personal protection members.

The taskforce came after increasing concern over the safety and security of politicians after high-profile incidences of violence in Europe and the United States.

An AFP spokesperson told Guardian Australia that its work through the campaign had focused on “investigations into reports of electoral-related crime, including security threats to parliamentarians and candidates” ranging from threats of violence, to Australian Electoral Commission referrals of political candidates who had submitted false information on their nomination forms.

As of Thursday, Operation Wilmot had assessed 82 complaints and referrals through the election period, with 39 formally investigated.

Of those, 24 related to the offence of Use Carriage Service to Threaten, Menace, Harass or Cause Offence; three related to Use Postal Service to Menace, Harass or Cause Offence; two related to Make a Threat; and one of Taking or Concealing Postal Item.

Nine matters were referred by the AEC.

The AFP would not say which politicians had been the subject of threats or investigations.

“Seventeen matters were finalised and 22 are ongoing, one resulting in criminal charges as at 3 June 2022. A number of matters are still subject of ongoing police enquiries,” the AFP spokesperson said.

“All 82 matters referred to the Wilmot taskforce were individually assessed for safety measures and security mitigation strategies in the context of each parliamentarian and candidate.”

The single matter resulting in charges related to allegations a 52-year-old man verbally threatened an AFP officer while attempting to confront Joyce on a highway near Armidale in April. Police said on 25 April the man had been charged with Threatening to cause harm to a commonwealth public official, which carries a maximum five-year jail term.

The man briefly appeared in a Tamworth court on Friday, where his case was adjourned to August.

During the election period, the AEC announced at least four referrals to the AFP of political candidates who the commission claimed may have provided false information on their nomination forms.

The AEC announced “concern” over whether the Liberal candidates in the seats of Isaacs and Lilley had provided false information about their residential address. One candidate was referred to police after allegedly nominating for two separate parties in two different states, but later said he had “no idea” he was a candidate for One Nation.

The former One Nation senator Rod Culleton was also referred to the AFP after the AEC alleged he “may have made a false declaration” that he was not an undischarged bankrupt.

“Not all referrals were related to candidates specifically, however all that involved a candidate were treated identically and therefore media releases were distributed,” an AEC spokesperson said.

The AEC also referred at least two cases to the AFP around election signage: one from conservative lobby group Advance, which depicted independent politicians Zali Steggall and David Pocock wearing the logo of the Greens; and a separate set of posters depicting numerous other independent politicians as being associated with the Greens.

The AEC noted that some of its referrals remained under investigation by the AFP.

“The AEC has these measures in place to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of federal elections and we are pleased that we have the ability to work with the AFP when needed throughout the 2022 federal election,” the spokesperson said.

Of the 43 matters which were referred to Operation Wilmot but not investigated, six were referred to Fixated Persons Operations or mental health services; 21 were found to not be commonwealth offences and were referred to state authorities; 15 did not reach a criminal threshold; and one was found to not be election related.

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