Home Affairs report sheds light on election day intercept of asylum seeker boat

By Melissa Coade

July 25, 2022

New Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil
Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil. (AAP Image/James Ross)

The new Home Affairs minister has slammed Scott Morrison’s decision to publicly promote intelligence about the interception of SIEV 915 on the day of the May federal election.

On Friday, a report prepared by Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo was published that revealed the public announcement of an asylum seeker boat on the day of the election was a direction of the former Coalition government.

Due to caretaker convention guidance, government departments and agencies did not have the legal power to make decisions about such public announcements during the election. Pezzullo’s report said the decision about what information was in the public interest to disclose was up to the responsible minister. 

“The apolitical character of the public service was preserved in this instance by the refusal on the part of departmental officials to amplify the public statement by sending it directly to journalists and to post it on social media,” Pezzullo said.

“The transparency and deterrence effect was already available from the original public statement. Any domestic amplification was judged by officials to be primarily for political purposes. Accordingly, they declined the relevant requests.”

Clare O’Neil commended the actions of public servants and uniformed personnel from the Australian Border Force and Defence Force members. She said public servants involved in the saga acted ‘apolitically’ and ‘with bravery’ in standing up to a government direction that really would have undermined the independence of the APS.

“[They] acted with integrity and at the highest standards at all times. They should be commended for doing so,” O’Neil said.

“They are great patriots for the way that they acted.”

The publication of a statement about the boat intercept on the Home Affairs website occurred just after 1pm on 21 May, and about six minutes after the prime minister started speaking about the statement during a press conference. Then at 3pm the same day, Home Affairs identified screenshots on Twitter published by the NSW Liberals of a spam text message: “BREAKING – Aust Border Force has intercepted an illegal boat trying to reach Aus. Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today.” These screenshots were shared with the secretary.

The minister described the actions of the former Coalition government as ‘undermining the integrity’ of the complex task of Operation Sovereign Borders. She savaged claims made by her predecessor Karen Andrews that the Home Affairs department was not pressured by her office or former prime minister Scott Morrison to publish details of the boat intercept sooner.  

“The former government had a duty to protect Australia. Instead, they sabotaged the protocols that protect Operation Sovereign Borders for political gain,” O’Neil said, adding the consequence of these actions made the job of the Australian Border Force (ABF) more difficult and dangerous.

“The profound compromise of a military-led operation is without precedent in Australia’s history. It was disgraceful, shameful, and characteristic of a national government which frequently pursued political interests above the national interest,” she said. 

Andrews appeared on the Today show at the weekend clarifying no caretaker conventions had been breached. She pointed to the fact the election-day announcement was brief and kept to the facts as evidence its release was not a political ploy. 

“I asked the department to lawfully put out a statement and – actually it wasn’t the department, it was the head of Operation Sovereign Borders– I asked clearly for the statement to be put out in a very situational awareness type of report,” Andrews told the breakfast television program.

“I have always been truthful and I have always answered the questions that have been put to me.

“I was asked by the prime minister to issue the statement. And that is exactly what I did,” she said. 

O’Neil said the LNP had lost its moral compass and demanded the Opposition apologise to the Australian people for blurring the line between the national interest and the political interests of the Coalition. She demanded Andrews provide a full detailed account of the instructions that was given to Home Affairs on 21 May, 2022.

“Andrews was asked [at the weekend] whether she asked her department to act outside their apolitical mandate. She denied it. The report shows the exact opposite, in fact, that the minister at the time directly asked public servants that reported to her to support the political interests of the government and in doing so, undermined our democracy on the day of an election,” O’Neil said.

“They swore an oath to protect the interests of Australians, and instead they went ahead and tried to politicise the public service, to politicise the work of people who put on a uniform every day and fight for our country.

“They need to show some remorse and come forward and apologise for these disgraceful actions and this betrayal of our democracy.”

Pezzullo’s report recommended PM&C think about revising caretaker guidance to firstly consider that caretaker conventions do not detract from ministerial authority, and that officials are obliged at all times to follow lawful directions. Secondly, he suggested that unless a threat to life exists or some other urgency concerning public safety and security is involved, potentially significant political and sensitive information should not be made public during the caretaker period.

“The guidance on caretaker conventions 2021, as paragraph 1.3 confirms, are not legally binding, nor hard and fast rules,” the report warned.

“Their application in individual cases requires judgment and common sense. The responsibility for observing the conventions ultimately rests with agency heads or, in cases where they are involved, with the prime minister and ministers.”


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