Former Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg waited to see his former colleagues respond to opposition senators looking for evidence of “the inappropriate exercise of ministerial powers” before laying his cards on the table. But Minister Peter Dutton says it was all a bluff and has played a very strong hand of his own.
This high-stakes political game is sadly a bit more complicated than poker, so it isn’t entirely certain who has the winning hand, although Dutton looks pretty unassailable after showing that Quaedvlieg made claims to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee that could not possibly be true.
Dutton’s fairly devastating statement is the sort one would not expect to see if the minister was even slightly worried that Quaedvlieg might possess verifiable documentary evidence proving he used his powers to help friends, supporters or well-connected acquaintances. His counter-claim is that Quaedvlieg, angry about his dismissal, is in cahoots with the opposition and has concocted a story out of thin air to damage him and the government.
The inaugural ABF commissioner won’t back down. He proactively told The Mandarin and other publications on Friday afternoon that he stands by “the effective substance” of his first letter and had tried to explain in a second letter to the Senate committee, sent shortly before 2pm, but would say no more to the media.
Quaedvlieg’s second statement has now been uploaded to the committee’s website where his first letter appeared.
On Thursday evening, he said he might have got mixed up with “another Brisbane case which occurred at a later date and which may not yet be in the public domain” or, alternatively, might have got the dates wrong.
He also asked Dutton to “desist from personal attacks and casting aspersions over my actions, motivation, integrity, reputation and mental health” in reference to a savage attack on his character in the minister’s media release.
The minister went to town on the ex-commissioner, painting him as a tool of the Labor party who regularly leaked to the media, pointing out he “remains under criminal investigation” by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and claiming he is “bitter” about his termination, which resulted from the same ACLEI inquiry.
Quaedvlieg asserted in the initial submission that he had “assiduously declined” a lot of invitations to comment on the controversy around au pairs or publicise relevant information from his time at the ABF, and stated that neither the department nor the uniformed agency had contacted him in preparation for the inquiry.
“In the absence of that engagement I was compelled to follow the evidence adduced at the public hearings and to read the submitted responses to the QoNs to satisfy myself that the public record accurately captures details of information of which I may be aware.”
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Dutton’s swift rebuttal stated his chief of staff Craig Maclachlan did not work for his office or the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in mid-June 2015, when the former ABF chief had claimed to have received a call from Maclachlan asking how he could do a favour for “the boss’s mate in Brisbane” whose “prospective au pair” had been detained.
Elsewhere it has been noted that officially, Quaedvlieg was head of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service until July 1, 2015, so he was also technically incorrect to refer to himself as being the ABF commissioner in June of that year.
This is a fairly inconsequential error given the high degree of continuity between the two roles during a complex machinery-of-government process, but still undermines the credibility of Quaedvlieg’s initial recollections, especially when one considers there was plenty of time and opportunity to get the facts straight before sending the letter.
The minister says Fairfax ran the disputed claims without contacting his office for comment, and notes the article was published four hours before the committee published the letter.
There will no doubt be more to come and at least one committee member wants the inquiry extended to deal with the contradictory claims, but Dutton ended the week in a strong position to continue claiming the whole affair is little more than a partisan muck-raking exercise.