Scott Morrison’s staff urged border force to publicise Sri Lankan boat interception on election day | Scott Morrison

On election day, Scott Morrison’s staff conveyed a clear message to border force officials through Karen Andrews’s office that they wanted the department to publicize the interception of a boat from Sri Lanka, Guardian Australia understands.

While an investigation into the politically-charged incident is ongoing, people familiar with the events last Saturday have confirmed that, on current information, staff working for Andrews made it clear to officials that Morrison wanted the boat interception publicized. They also conveyed that they wanted the opposition briefed about the incident, given the caretaker convention was in force.

Border force officials began to draft a statement confirming the interception and prepared separate briefing materials for the opposition but made it clear to senior ministerial staffers that any publication of the interception, or briefing of the opposition, could only proceed on the authority of the home affairs minister. Political staff did not have the power to direct officials.

People familiar with events on the day have told Guardian Australia Andrews’ ministerial staff subsequently conveyed to border force officials that the two actions – proceeding with the statement and briefing Labor – had been authorized.

As officials mulled the highly unusual political intervention, they believed that any such direction from Andrews was lawful and within the ministerial authority.

Operation Sovereign Borders operates directly under the minister’s authority for home affairs and has done since Morrison established the deterrence structure in 2013.

While they were confident the Andrews’s direction was within the scope of her powers, officials believed that a judgment call about whether or not the order was consistent with the spirit of the caretaker convention was a matter for their political masters.

Andrews’ office confirmed to the Guardian that she had been given a “copy of the statement ahead of its publication, ” which she had previously told the ABC.

But a spokesperson said Andrews’ office was never asked to approve the publication of the media release.

Scott Morrison

Mike Pezzullo, the Department of Home Affairs secretary, has asked for a forensic chronology of the events to be prepared to brief the new prime minister Anthony Albanese and the incoming minister for home affairs. A report about the incident will be handed to the government on Monday.

The unusual media release from border force officials paved the way for a last-ditch political offensive by the Liberal campaign, which pushed texts to voters across key electorates on Saturday afternoon warning them the only way they could maintain secure borders was by voting Liberal.

Last Saturday, an NSW Liberal party spokesman confirmed the party had sent the text, adding, “as Australians go to vote today, it is important that they are informed about the choice that is before them”.

At midday on election day, Morrison confirmed the interception after voting at Lilli Pilli public school. “That vessel has been intercepted by government policies, and they’re following those normal protocols,” the then-prime minister told reporters.

“I can simply say this. I’ve been here to stop this boat, but for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today. In the interests of full transparency in the middle of an election campaign, the Labor party was advised of this”.

Albanese said on Friday, Morrison’s office had contacted his office on Saturday afternoon about the boat’s arrival.

The prime minister said his office had indicated to Morrison’s staff it would be “entirely inappropriate for this event to be politicized”, calling it “a clear breach of the caretaker conventions” of government during an election.

Albanese accused the Coalition of “a disgraceful act” and “an abuse of proper processes”.

“There was nothing normal about the protocols that were not observed here,” Albanese said in an interview on ABC AM radio. “This was a decision made by Scott Morrison in a desperate attempt to run a last-minute scare campaign.”

Albanese noted that Morrison, in his former role as immigration minister, had previously refused to comment on “on-water matters”.

“Very clearly, this statement was made so that it could facilitate the sending of, we are not sure how many, but potentially many millions of text messages to voters in a last-minute scare campaign,” Albanese said.

“It was an entire abuse of proper processes and a disgraceful act from a government which was prepared to politicize everything but solve nothing.”

“It just showed that the government had lost perspective. They were prepared to politicize anything and everything … this was a new low.”

The prime minister said he had confidence in Pezzullo.

The Liberal frontbencher Stuart Robert, the former employment minister, also appeared on ABC radio on Friday morning. He said he was not involved in the boat announcement but didn’t back away.

“I can’t comment on it, having not been involved, but I think all Australians understand Labor by history is incredibly weak on boat arrivals,” Robert said.

“I won’t be taking lectures from the Labor party on caretaker conventions or boat arrivals.”

In the ABC interview earlier this week, when asked whether she authorized the statement, Andrews initially did not answer directly but said the media release was a “very factual statement”.

“I think it was an important thing to do, given that it was election day and there needed to be transparency. There was also immediately a briefing offered to the Labor party….”

Pressed again by journalist Michael Rowland, she replied, “I saw the statement before it was released. There is a secondary issue with texts that were sent out. I had nothing to do with the text messages.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.