Report released into SIEV 915 interception on election day

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Officials were put under pressure to release a public statement about the interception of suspected illegal entry vessel (SIEV) 915 before the operation was finished on election day, an investigation has found.

In his report, home affairs department secretary Michael Pezzullo said caretaker conventions did not have the force of law, so it was “for the responsible minister” to assess the public interest in making the announcement.

“The detailed chronology of events indicates 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,” he said.

“The pressure was exacerbated by the direction to draft and publish the statement within 15 minutes.”

Mr Pezzullo noted that before the public statement appeared on the Australian Border Force newsroom, a journalist asked then Prime Minister Scott Morrison about reports a vessel had been intercepted during an attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka.

“The information may have made its way to the journalist separate to, and before, the ABF newsroom announcement,” Mr Pezzullo said.

In an attachment to the report, which detailed the chronology of events, it was noted that at 11.09am on May 21, the Secretary directed the department to “keep an eye out for any chatter on social media or worse any leaks to the media. It could become a very late election issue.”

By 11.59am, the Minister for Home Affairs’ office used words to the effect of “the Prime Minister wants a statement” about the vessel interception.

Within half an hour, preparations were made to brief the opposition.

The department finished loading the statement onto the website at 1pm but it took another nine minutes to flush through.

Mr Morrison had his press conference at 1.03pm and was questioned about the vessel three minutes later.

The opposition was not briefed until 2.26pm.

Mr Pezzullo said when the request was made to publish the statement, there was no evidence to suggest officials knew the Liberal Party was planning to SMS and tweet at 3.03pm: “BREAKING – Aust Border Force has intercepted an illegal boat trying to reach Aus. Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today.”

He suggested the department might want to consider revising provisions of the caretaker conventions, in two aspects:

  • The caretaker conventions do not detract from ministerial authority and officials are obliged to follow lawful directions; and
  • Sensitive information that is potentially politically significant should not be released publicly during the caretaker period unless there is a threat to life or other public safety and security urgency.

Originally published as Report into vessel interception on election day reveals messages sent by government officials


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