Alan Tudge has had no contact with senior officials in his department since he stood aside as education minister aside more than five months ago, except for the cancellation of scheduled meetings and a welfare check via WhatsApp.
Tudge still technically holds his ministerial position and is willing to resume those duties if the Coalition is re-elected, but Guardian Australia can reveal he has had very limited communication with the education department in the meantime.
A freedom of information application for all communications between Tudge and the secretary or other senior officers of the department between 3 December and 11 April uncovered just three instances.
Two were the head of the department cancelling previously scheduled commitments: a weekly meeting between the department and the minister’s office, and a pre-briefing about a gathering of the country’s education ministers.
The third was a WhatsApp exchange between a senior public servant and Tudge.
“Hi Minister,” a senior departmental officer wrote on 3 December.
“Hope you are doing ok. Tough day – hope you have some support wrapped around you. Take care.”
Tudge replied three days later.
“Appreciate the message,” he said. “Yes, had better days.”
Tudge stood aside from his ministerial position on 2 December, after claims from the former senior political adviser Rachelle Miller that he had been emotionally and, on one occasion, physically abusive to her while they were in a relationship in 2017. Tudge denies the allegations.
On 4 March the government released a report by the former bureaucrat Vivienne Thom, finding there was insufficient evidence Tudge had breached the ministerial standards. Miller chose not to participate in the inquiry, saying the government had ignored her concerns over its terms of reference.
On Tuesday Tudge would not say if he wanted to return to the role of education minister after the election, but indicated he was willing to do so.
“The PM has made clear my arrangements. The PM has said if we win the election and I’m in a position to return to the frontbench then I will do so,” he said at a prepoll in his Melbourne electorate of Aston.
Tudge would not say whether he had been involved in cabinet meetings or if he had had contact with the acting education minister, Stuart Robert, or education officials.
“It’s a matter for me who I have spoken to and when I have spoken to them,” he said.
Scott Morrison has faced repeated questions about the unorthodox ministerial arrangements.
On the first day of the election campaign, the prime minister said: “Alan Tudge is still in my cabinet.”
That seemed to contradict a statement on 4 March when Morrison said of Tudge: “Today he has informed me that in the interests of his family and his own wellbeing and in order to focus on his re-election as the member for Aston he is not seeking to return to the frontbench, and I support his decision.”
Morrison later moved to clarify that Tudge was “technically” still a member of the cabinet, but that he had not been receiving a ministerial salary since December.
Pressed on the meaning of “technically”, Morrison said: “It means that he still has his warrant as a minister from the governor general. And as a result, he’s formally still the education minister.”
The prime minister said the Victorian MP “stood aside for his own health and family reasons, and when he is ready to return to the cabinet then he will”.
Morrison was more definitive when asked during Wednesday’s leaders’ debate who would be education minister if the Coalition was re-elected. “It will be Alan Tudge,” Morrison replied.
Government officials confirmed in early April that Tudge remained education minister and was “on leave” despite the acting minister, Robert, performing the functions of the role.
Robert has rebuffed requests from Labor’s education shadow minister, Tanya Plibersek, for a pre-election debate on education policy. Robert told the ABC that Plibersek had left it too late to request such a debate.
Plibersek then tweeted a letter she had sent to Morrison more than two weeks ago asking for clarity about whether Tudge or Robert should be her designated debating partner, given “ongoing uncertainty over who in your cabinet has responsibility for education policy”.
“I am happy to debate either or both of your ministers,” Plibersek wrote on 22 April.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Sky News journalist located Tudge at the prepoll and conducted the first interview with the Liberal MP in many months.
Questioned about Labor’s request for a debate, Tudge said Robert would be “the appropriate person to do that”.
Asked why the Department of Finance was negotiating with Miller to receive a payment in excess of $500,000, Tudge said: “As the prime minister said, he’s unaware, I’m unaware. It’s a matter for the Department of Finance.
“I have no information. I haven’t been called as a witness. I haven’t been asked to provide evidence and as the prime minister said, if it involved me, he would have been made aware and he hasn’t been made aware.”