Coalition ‘subverted democracy’ with election-day statement on asylum boat, Labor says

Home affairs minister Clare O’Neil says former government’s pressuring of public servants to reveal boat arrival was ‘unprecedented’

The former Morrison government subverted Australia’s democracy, undermined the public service and endangered members of the defence force when it pressured public servants to reveal details of an asylum seeker boat on election day, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil has said, lambasting the former government for its “disgraceful” actions.

O’Neil said those members of the government involved should “hang their heads in shame” and apologise for pressuring public servants and defence officials to issue the statement over the intercepted boat – an occurrence that was then used as a final-hours campaign tool.

“I think the actions here would be reprehensible on any day of the year,” O’Neil said. “But the fact that the former government chose to put pressure on our public servants, put pressure on our members in uniform, to undermine our democracy, on the day of an election, is unprecedented in this country.”

On election day, Morrison government staffers pressured defence and home affairs officials to issue a statement about a boat carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers that had been interdicted in Australian waters.

The Liberal party then used the arrival of a boat as the basis for an election day text message urging people to “Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”.

A report released on Friday by the secretary of the home affairs department, Mike Pezzullo, found public service staff acted “apolitically”, resisting pressure from the office of the then minister for home affairs, Karen Andrews, to leak news of the boat’s arrival to selected preferred journalists.

But a chronology showed selected journalists were briefed on the boat’s arrival before the statement was made public, ostensibly so the then prime minister, Scott Morrison, could be asked about it, and the Coalition could use it for the purposes of political campaigning.

Andrews said there was nothing improper in her actions.

“I was asked by the prime minister to issue the statement and that is exactly what I did,” the former home affairs minister said on Saturday.

Andrews said her focus was on publishing the statement and briefing the opposition on the circumstances of the boat.

“Now if you go back to the lead-up to the election, it was very clear that there was a lot of media reporting, there was a lot of social media reporting, about this being a scaremongering tactic by the Coalition government to create fear about whether or not there would be boat arrivals.

“I was advised early-ish in the morning of election day that a boat had been intercepted. Later we then went down the pathway of issuing a statement. It was a statement that was very operational in its focus and I think that was the appropriate way for it to happen.”

But O’Neil said the actions of the former government on election day “were profoundly disgraceful, and subverted our democracy on the day of an election”.

She said the former government “undermined the Australian defence force, and undermined our democracy”.

“Australian defence force personnel and my department acted apolitically and in fact with great bravery in standing up against being asked to do something which really would have undermined the independence of the Australian public service.

“They are great patriots for the way that they acted and I want to put on record my commendation and the government’s commendation for their actions on that day.”

O’Neil said if ever there was an example of why Australia needed a federal anti-corruption commission, “this is it”.

“The former government had a duty to protect Australia. Instead, they sabotaged the protocols that protect Operation Sovereign Borders for political gain. Their actions undermined the integrity of this complex operation, making it more difficult and dangerous.”

Pezzullo’s report shows Andrews’ office pressuring public servants to hasten to publish a report before a prime ministerial press conference.

According to a detailed chronology in Pezzullo’s report, just before midday on election day, Andrews’ office asked the commander of the Operation Sovereign Borders taskforce to issue a statement, using words to the effect that “the prime minister wants a statement”.

The commander was told to finalise the statement within 15 minutes, it said.

At 12.34pm the department sent a draft release to the minister’s office, prompting revisions from Andrews’ office to add the vessel had arrived “illegally” from Sri Lanka. The additions by the minister’s office were erroneous: it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia.

The ABF officials followed the direction to publish “a factual public statement on the interception” but refused to “amplify the public statement by posting it on social media and sending it directly to journalists”, Pezzullo said.

Pezzullo concluded that refusal indicated the public servants had acted in an “apolitical” manner and did not breach caretaker conventions.

The department loaded the statement on the ABF website at 1pm, before Morrison began a press conference at 1.03pm.

When the statement failed to appear immediately, it prompted a flurry of texts from the minister’s office, including “is it live?? PM is speaking” and “a lot of people are furious”.

At 1.06pm on election day, Morrison was asked about “reports” of an illegal asylum boat arrival, which he confirmed, adding: “I’ve been here to stop this boat. But in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today.”


Ben Doherty and Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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