The leak that wasn’t: department admits ‘erroneous’ referral to federal police

By Stephen Easton

October 28, 2019

Peter Dutton
Home Affairs boss Peter Dutton. Sky News Australia

Sometimes, what seems like a leak is not actually a leak at all.

The Department of Home Affairs has issued an intriguing statement acknowledging it made an “erroneous” referral to the Australian Federal Police earlier this year.

It asked the AFP to look into “a matter of alleged unauthorised disclosure” on March 18 but now accepts it was mistaken.

“The matter related to costs of medical transfer from Nauru to Taiwan,” the department explains.

“Such administrative costs are regularly released publicly, including through media enquiries, parliamentary committees and Estimates hearings.

“The referral was assessed by the AFP in accordance with established processes. After initial inquiries, the AFP determined that it would take no further action on the referral.

“The Department acknowledges that on that basis the referral to the AFP was erroneous.”

The terse statement contains no further details about the alleged leak that turned out not to be a leak, but more information is likely to emerge soon. The AFP has already released documents related to the March 18 referral in response to an FOI request, according to Home Affairs, and they will be published on its disclosure log on or after November 1.

The unusual statement might relate to one piece of information about the cost of medical transfers from Nauru to Taiwan that emerged in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on March 9. The newspaper reported the department spent $300,000 flying a refugee to the island nation by private jet to have a kidney stone removed. The story was illustrated with pictures from the refugee’s social media posts showing him going sight-seeing on the trip, but did not explain the source of the figure.

The AFP has recently changed its process for investigating alleged leaks from federal agencies. In his first appearance at Senate estimates as commissioner, Reece Kerhsaw said the top brass had issued a new “internal national guideline on investigations of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer” in response to an August 8 ministerial direction from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, which outlined new expectations about how federal police officers should approach leak investigations.

Dutton told the AFP he wanted its officers to “take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications” in these cases, and “exhaust alternative investigation options” before targeting the person who reports the leaked information.

He also wants the federal police to set a higher bar for agencies by asking public service leaders to explain the actual harm that a specific leak could cause when they ask the cops to investigate.

Read next: Home Affairs under investigation for persistent breaches of FOI Act

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