‘Disgraceful’: report reveals Morrison government pressured border force to promote election day boat arrival

by Paul Karp
Labor says action by former government ‘sabotaged’ protocols for political gain and was ‘without precedent’ in Australian history

Morrison government staff pressured the Australian Border Force to draft and issue a statement about an asylum seeker boat intercepted on election day before the operation had finished, a damning departmental report has found.

Labor’s home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, released the report on Friday and accused the former Coalition government of having “sabotaged the protocols that protect Operation Sovereign Borders for political gain” in an incident “without precedent”.

The boat arrival, confirmed by Scott Morrison and then an ABF statement on 21 May, formed the basis of a last-minute text message scare campaign from the NSW Liberal party urging voters to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”.

The home affairs department secretary, Michael Pezzullo, found it was within then home affairs minister Karen Andrews’ power to demand the ABF statement be released and the department was powerless to refuse.

According to a detailed chronology in Friday’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.

Pezzullo found there was “pressure placed on officials to release a public statement regarding the interception of SIEV 915 prior to the conclusion of the operational activity”. It was exacerbated by the order to do so within 15 minutes.

At 12.34pm the department gave a draft release to the minister’s office, prompting revisions from Andrews’ office to add the vessel had arrived likely “illegally” from Sri Lanka.

The minister’s office requested the statement be emailed to a list of journalists identified by them but Pezzullo directed this not to occur.

“Under no circumstances is the department to drop the story to selected journalists,” he said at the time. “The release once cleared is to be posted to our news and media site – no more and no less.”

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 in Friday’s report.

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 Lilli Pilli public school at 1.03pm on 21 May.

But the statement did not appear immediately, prompting a flurry of concerned texts from the minister’s office, including “is it live?? PM is speaking” and “a lot of people are furious”.

Pezzullo suggested the new government consider adding to caretaker conventions that “in the ordinary course, sensitive information that is potentially politically significant should not be released publicly during the caretaker period unless a threat to life exists or some other urgency concerning public safety and security is involved”.

O’Neil on Friday said the former government had “undermined the integrity of this complex operation, making it more difficult and dangerous”.

“The report found uniformed border force and defence force members, and public servants, acted with integrity and at the highest standards at all times,” she said.

“They should be commended for doing so. 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. That is something the Albanese government will never do.”

Guardian Australia contacted Andrews for comment.