The Morrison government’s demand that a boat interception be announced on election day was “astonishing in form and timing” and “unprecedented”, according to the public servants involved.
Messages between the Australian Border Force and home affairs department officials, produced under freedom of information (FOI) laws, shed further light on the extreme haste to publish a statement before Scott Morrison confirmed the operation.
The boat arrival 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”.
In July, a damning report by the department secretary, Michael Pezzullo, found Morrison government staff pressured the ABF to draft and issue a statement about an asylum seeker boat intercepted on election day before the operation had finished.
According to Pezzulo’s report, just before midday on 21 May, then home affairs minister Karen 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”.
The new FOI documents include messages from 23 May, two days after the election, in which one of the department’s assistant secretaries of media and communication, Sara Vrh, asked “as a dept person – has there ever been precedent for a former CJATF [commander – joint agency taskforce Operation Sovereign Borders] to issue a public statement about an OSB op? I can only find Min[isterial] level ones”.
A public servant, unnamed due to redactions, replied: “Never. It was astonishing in form and timing.” Vrh then said: “It was, as you know, as directed.”
The public servant replied: “It was unprecedented. Normally the minister announces it after the [illegal maritime arrivals] have touched down/been returned. Strict operational secrecy until then.”
The documents include a conversation on 21 May in which Vhr told another public servant shortly before 1pm that: “[I] cannot stress how quickly this needs to go up.”
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”.
According to the election day boat scare chronology, Morrison was asked and answered the question about the boat BEFORE it went live online.
Please enjoy details of Andrew's staff flipping their lid about this.#auspol pic.twitter.com/yCzpNQMKxZ
— Paul Karp (@Paul_Karp) July 22, 2022
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.”
Morrison declined to take follow-up questions about whether the announcement breached protocols not to discuss on-water matters. His answer finished at 1.07pm and the statement went live online at 1.09pm.
The newly-released documents reveal at 1.07pm, Vrh noted “he’s just confirmed it”. “Pm just confor,ed ot [confirmed it]. Said we have issued a statement.”
Vrh then impressed on the fellow public servant liaising with web ops to publish the statement to “tell him this cannot be more important”. “This is critical.”
Other FOI documents reveal a series of draft statements, described as “PM [prime minister] statement request for CJATF [Commander – Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders]”.
Phrases added to later drafts included: “The Australian government’s policy remains unchanged. We will intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally and safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.”
A later version added that the vessel was from Sri Lanka and part of a likely attempt to enter Australia “illegally”.