Major breach of caretaker conventions by Home Affairs demands independent inquiry

By Bernard Keane

May 27, 2022

Justin Jones
Chief of Navy, rear admiral Justin Jones. (AAP Image/Trevor Collens)

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, rear admiral Justin Jones, should be in the firing line over what looks to be a major breach of caretaker conventions relating to the politicised announcement of an illegal maritime vessel on election day. And a Home Affairs inquiry won’t cut it.

The ABC’s Andrew Greene has revealed it was Morrison’s own office that lobbied Home Affairs to make the announcement of a boat arrival, in breach of the Coalition’s longstanding policy of non-disclosure, and Home Affairs agreed that Jones, as head of Sovereign Borders, could announce it.

Prime minister Albanese confirmed this morning that his team had been contacted by the PMO about the announcement on Saturday — in accordance with caretaker conventions — and refused to agree to the announcement.

This means a core aspect of the caretaker conventions was seemingly breached by Home Affairs and Jones.

It’s unsurprising that Scott Morrison and his team should trash one last standard of public integrity on their way out the door — they have demeaned and disgraced Australian public life for three and a half years, so casually abusing caretaker conventions in the quest for a grubby last-minute scare campaign is true to form. But however politicised the Australian Public Service is, adherence to caretaker conventions is something close to sacred. If the APS can’t be trusted to be independent once parliament is dissolved, then we are on our way to a US-style, completely political civil service that must be cleaned out at every change of government.

Absent some additional information, Home Affairs’ convenient decision that a change of announcement policy was acceptable without the agreement of the opposition is a major breach. Nor would it have been taken by a middle manager — unless internal communications has completely broke down in that department, the Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, would have automatically been informed of the PMO request. Secretaries have ultimate oversight of adherence to caretaker rules like requests from political offices.

Jones, who appears to have had responsibility for the announcement foisted on him like an unwanted gift, was placed in an invidious position — his is an operational, not a policy role, so it should not have been his call. Even so, the caretaker provisions apply to him as well.

While the government has asked Home Affairs to conduct an inquiry into what happened on Saturday, it is inappropriate that Pezzullo and his department should be conducting any sort of investigation into their own behaviour. Only an independent inquiry — with coercive powers — will do to properly explore what misjudgments were made and by whom.

That’s all the more the case given that Home Affairs, and its predecessor departments, has long been the least competent and most poorly led department in the APS, with a staggering list of scandals and disasters reaching back to even before the Coalition government.

The prime minister said this morning he had confidence in Pezzullo. He may have spoken too soon. We need a proper inquiry into this department before anyone is let off the hook.


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