Protest against the Australian Border Force in Melbourne last week. Photo: Joe ArmaoThe Immigration and Border Protection portfolio hinges on secrecy and a tightly curbed flow of information, which makes the statements of public officials critically important.
Australian Border Force’s blighted involvement in a Melbourne police operation last Friday was triggered by what Prime Minister Tony Abbott called a “badly worded” press release.
But the confusion, abstraction and contradiction proffered by official sources did not stop there, leaving many unanswered questions and creating doubt about who, and what, the public should believe. Below are some examples.
Amid the bungling, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton did not make a single public appearance. On Monday morning he explained his absence to 2GB host Ray Hadley, saying he was sick and “didn’t get out of bed yesterday”.
1) What was the Australian Border Force even planning to do in Melbourne?
The controversy began with a now-infamous press release issued at 9.16am on Friday, in which Don Smith, ABF Regional Commander for Victoria and Tasmania, warned “ABF officers will be speaking with any individual we cross paths with” during a crackdown on visa fraud.
At 1.46pm, following public outrage and protests, the ABF clarified it “does not and will not stop people at random in the streets”.
2) Was media misreporting to blame for the controversy?
Scrambling to hose down the story on Friday, the Australian Border Force issued a statement saying it “will not be ‘stopping people at random’ in Melbourne to ‘check people’s papers’ as reported in media”.
This statement implied the media had misreported the stated intent of the operation.
ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvleig later conceded the press release “incorrectly construed what our role was … it should have been better explained, it was clumsy.”
3) Was the press release cleared by those in the Border Force’s upper ranks?
Mr Quaedvleig said the press release was “released at the lower levels of the organisation”, indicating that he and other senior officials were not to blame for the farce.
But he confirmed Mr Smith signed off on the quotes attributed to him. Mr Smith is the head of the Border Force in Victoria and Tasmania – surely not someone considered to be at the “lower levels of the organisation”.
The Guardian Australia has reported that the border force assistant secretary for communications and media, Mark Jeffries, also cleared the statement.
4) Was Mr Dutton involved in issuing the press release and did he have prior knowledge of the Melbourne operation?
Mr Quaedvleig said Mr Dutton’s office was “not involved” in issuing the press release, which was “circulated at a regional level in the state of Victoria”.
On Friday Fairfax Media asked Mr Dutton’s office if he knew in advance of the operation. The reply? “Ministers don’t direct operational matters”.
On Saturday Mr Abbott sought to distance the government from the press release, saying it went out “at arm’s length from the executive government”.
“All sorts of press releases go out all the time – but they go out under the authority of the relevant officials, they go out under the authority of the relevant agencies and that all happens at arm’s length from ministers,” he said.
But later that day it emerged the press release was sent to Mr Dutton’s office on Wednesday as an attachment to a briefing note about the operation. It was not opened because it appeared “routine”
The Guardian Australia has reported that a shorter briefing note, with the press release attached, was also sent to Mr Dutton’s office on Thursday morning.
5) How extensive was the operation meant to be?
In its original press release, the ABF said the operation would focus on “people travelling to, from and around the CBD” and officers would be “positioned at various locations”.
In its clarification, the ABF played down the extent of its involvement, saying while the operation would occur at numerous locations, its officers would be stationed “at only two” of them
6) Was the operation a genuine “first”?
The ABF initially trumpeted the operation as a grand premiere in which “officers will for the first time join forces with a diverse team of transport and enforcement agencies”.
On Saturday, Mr Abbott conceded “there was no additional involvement of Australian Border Force in this than is customary in any number of other routine operations” – which begs the question as to why a press release was even issued.
The department also conceded “joint operations of this type are common and were previously conducted by departmental immigration officers”.
However the department is yet to answer questions from Fairfax Media about where operations of this type were previously conducted, and if they are planned in future.
7) Has this type of Border Force operation happened in Sydney?
Asked about the Melbourne operation on Friday, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant said “the Border Force already engages in NSW”.
“Not just on that issue [visa fraud]. They also go into work places, they also target prostitution et cetera. So they do a range of stuff. So it’s just Victoria catching up.”
After the operation was cancelled, Mr Grant’s office clarified that he was referring only to joint raids of premises such as brothels that have been carried out by NSW Police and immigration officials for many years.
8) Did Labor support the Border Force’s powers being used in the way planned for Melbourne?
Asked about the operation on Friday morning, Labor leader Bill Shorten did not immediately condemn it.
“Labor obviously believes in targeting crime,” he said.
“I do hope that any of these actions are done to try and protect Australian laws, to make sure that people are not overstaying their visas, to make sure that temporary guest workers are not being exploited.”
On Saturday, following the dramatic fallout, Mr Shorten described the operation as “one of the most catastrophically silly ideas I’ve seen this government do”.
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