Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain never thought she’d be the target of “derogatory”, “absurd” and “unhinged” emails when she ran in the seat’s 2020 by-election.
But that’s precisely what happened, with a Sydney stranger sending more than 23 million emails as part of an offensive misinformation campaign.
Blacktown’s Cheng Fan was recently sentenced to 20 months to be served in the community under conditions, including a three-year good behaviour bond and orders to undertake mental health treatment.
The 34-year-old pleaded guilty to 12 charges, including using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence, dealing in identification information and misleading or deceptive publications.
He’s the first person in Australia to be successfully prosecuted and sentenced for breaching electoral laws prohibiting misleading or deceiving Australians when casting their votes under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.
Ms McBain said 12 to 15 different types of emails landed in inboxes across the country.
“They were calling me things like crazy, saying I had COVID, that I had pulled out of the election,” she said.
“But then they also said I was training paedophiles in how to avoid the courts, I had children locked in basements.
“It was pretty derogatory and then descended into absurd and unhinged emails about me and my family.”
She would receive warnings from family members in Victoria and complete strangers that they had received the misleading emails.
“A lot of people contacted me, saying they thought they were unacceptable and over the top,” Ms McBain said.
“It speaks to how in Australia we value our democracy, what is said during an election and what should be investigated.
“It was a real beacon of light that people valued our democracy in this way.”
But the targeted campaign left its mark.
“I’ve never been much of a guarded person, but I definitely am a bit more now,” Ms McBain said.
“I was concerned for my safety and the safety of my family, I have three young kids and my husband and I run our own small business as well.
“It’s disappointing in a way, I never thought I’d have a reason not to share something because I was worried about my family, but I am now.”
However Ms McBain never thought of pulling out of the by-election race and found strength in not backing down.
“I did go through a sense of disbelief this was happening, then fear, but I ended with resolve,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to let someone stop me from doing what was right.”
The offensive emails were initially reported to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which then referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce.
The AFP launched Operation BALAH in June 2020 and searched Mr Fan’s Blacktown address a month later.
Officers seized his computer, along with other items such as SIM cards. These were found to be subscribed under different names and subsequent investigations discovered those names belonged to real people who had had their identities stolen.
The investigation also found Mr Fan had sent similar offensive emails relating to the Wentworth electorate during the Federal Election in May 2019.
When Ms McBain was told she wasn’t the only person targeted by Mr Fan, she said she felt a “weird” sense of relief.
“It doesn’t make you feel better, but there is a relief that it’s not about you as a person; the intention is to pervert by-election outcomes,” she said.
“Relief is a weird word in that sense.”
Other people targeted by Mr Fan included Dr Fiona Kotvojs (Ms McBain’s opponent at the time), Dave Sharma (former MP) and Dr Kerryn Phelps AM, as well as their political parties.
AFP leading senior constable Glen Brazendale said the complex operation which led to Mr Fan’s prosecution showcased the dedication of investigators and civilian staff in bringing him to justice and protecting our democracy.
“The matter is in many ways unique because no person has been successfully prosecuted for an offence under section 329(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918,” he said.
“Furthermore, the unique circumstances of the offending in this case have never been prosecuted before, specifically both the large scale of the offending and the nature of the offending.”
Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said the prosecution of Mr Fan sent a message to anyone who sought to undermine the integrity of Australia’s electoral system.
“A result like this draws a line in the sand as it provides precedent for any similar misbehaviour in the future,” he said.
As for Ms McBain, she has turned her head to the next three years as the newly minted Regional Development and Local Government and Territories Minister.
“I have a lot of briefings and work ahead of me,” she said.
“This person tried to change a by-election outcome and failed. In fact, they made my resolve stronger. I want to make sure I contribute each and every day to Parliament.”
And she had her own word of caution for those thinking of spreading misinformation during elections.
“This is no longer a test case; it has now been taken through our court system,” Ms McBain said.
“Anyone looking to pervert election outcomes through misinformation has been put on notice, people will investigate.”