It was supposed to be a routine inter-agency operation on Friday, when Victoria Police was targeting anti-social behaviour, but then Border Force barged in. The many twists and turns of the saga (and flip-flopping position of the opposition) have been very hard to follow, Crikey has put together a chronology of the border farce to keep track.

Friday

10.04am Victoria Police and Border Force each issue a press release stating Australian Border Force officers will take part in “Operation Fortitude” over the weekend, along with Victoria Police, Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff’s Office and the Taxi Services Commission to target “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

ABF’s regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith, is quoted as stating ABF officers would be “positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.

“You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud, you should know it is only a matter of time before you’re caught out,” Smith is quoted as saying.

There was to be a launch of the operation at 2pm on Friday with representatives from each agency involved on the steps of Flinders Street Station.

As news of the event spreads on social media, many interpret ABF’s release as suggesting officers would be asking people to provide evidence of valid visas on the spot. Protests are planned.

12.45pm Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is asked about Operation Fortitude at a doorstop in Perth and suggests Labor “believes in targeting crime”.

“Labor obviously believes in targeting crime. 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. Labor’s said for a while we’re concerned that under this government our employment visas, our temporary workers, are becoming too slackly regulated. To that extent we’re interested in what’s happening. On the other hand, if you’re going to do a blitz I don’t know why you’d necessarily telegraph it to the media first. We’ll wait to see if the government is fair dinkum or if this is just a press release to try to draw some positive attention to themselves.

1.52pm Just eight minutes before the event is scheduled to commence, Australian Border Force puts out a “clarifying” statement that ABF will not be “stopping people at random” in Melbourne to “check people’s papers”. The statement says ABF is just participating in an operation led by Victoria Police, and would conduct background visa check on people referred to ABF by other agencies.

“The ABF does not, and will not stop people at random in the streets, and does not target on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity,” the statement says.

2.00pm Protests are underway on the steps of Flinders Street Station, but Border Force are nowhere in sight. Crikey is on the ground at the event, and after locating a Victoria Police media representative, we are told that the press conference will still be going ahead, inside the station instead. After protesters block the traffic and trams on the intersection of Flinders Street and Swanston Street, word spreads of the event being held inside the station, and hundreds of protesters storm past the Myki barriers into the station. At this time, ABF and Victoria Police officers flee inside the police box at Flinders Street Station, and almost an hour after it was supposed to commence, the press conference is cancelled.

“We understand there has been a high level of community interest and concern which has been taken into consideration when making this decision. Victoria Police’s priority is the safety and wellbeing of the whole community and we will continue to work with our partner agencies to achieve this,” Victoria Police says in a Facebook post.

3.10pm The crowd disperses and Border Force officers leave the station in plain clothes, flanked by six Victoria Police officers.

3.20pm Victorian Police Minister Wade Noonan claims Operation Fortitude was to be a “standard police operation” and says that it was Australian Border Force’s “unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation” of the event that was to blame for its cancellation.

3.25pm Labor comes out a little stronger against the incident.

“This has been incredibly badly handled and Peter Dutton needs to immediately come clean on how this announcement was so botched,” Labor’s immigration spokesperson Richard Marles said in a press release.

“There is no question that there is an appropriate role for the government’s newly established Australian Border Force to be playing in cracking down on visa fraud. We support those efforts – but what we have witnessed in the last six hours has been a complete debacle on Peter Dutton’s watch. Mr Dutton needs to immediately explain to the community what on earth has transpired. Who sanctioned this announcement being made, what was its purpose, who called for its retraction and who is responsible for compromising this operation?”

At around about the same time, ABF Commander Roman Quaedvlieg gives a short press conference in Canberra in which he says Border Force was just “misunderstood” in the operation, but when pressed, quickly admits the original announcement was “clumsily worded” and only “cleared at a low level in the organisation”. He maintains the press release was just “misunderstood.”

“Taken into context, it makes absolute, perfect, legitimate sense. But read through the layperson’s eyes — which I absolutely openly acknowledge — it’s clumsily worded and it’s been misconstrued, and it shouldn’t have been worded that way.”

At the time, Quaedvlieg claims that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office “is not involved” in the operation, and the release was “circulated at a regional level in the state of Victoria”.

Saturday:

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is asked about Operation Fortitude at a doorstop in Oxley Park. Abbott says the original release was “over the top and wrong”. When asked who cleared the release, Abbott initially claims it was cleared by the Victorian branch of ABF. When a journalist suggests it was cleared within the highest levels of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Abbott responds that he doesn’t know.

“It was an operational press release. There are all sorts of things that our operational agencies do, all sorts of press releases that go out from the Australian Federal Police, from the Australian Border Force, from government departments. 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. It all happens at arm’s length from the executive government.”

The PM strongly denies his office was informed of the operation.

Former department communications spokesperson Sandi Logan suggests the release would have needed much higher clearance than that claimed by the government.

News Corporation’s Samantha Maiden contradicts Quaedvlieg’s claim that Dutton’s office was not alerted to the press release, revealing that a copy of the release was provided to his office on Wednesday night, but was not read.

Sunday: 

Guardian Australia’s Lenore Taylor reports that the release was sent a second time to Dutton’s office on Thursday.

At a press conference, Marles is asked why Labor did not speak out against the operation so strongly before it was due to commence. Marles responds:

“Well, our first reaction was one of disbelief, that this could be so and we sought an explanation from the Government as to what they were doing, an explanation that we continue to seek today and that is what we said on the day. There is obviously a legitimate role for Australian Border Force to make they are cracking down on visa fraud and we would obviously support that, but a circumstance where what you have is a proposition which is that officials of ABF stand up in strategic locations in Melbourne CBD and ask people, who ever comes across their path is absolutely astounding.”

Monday:

Dutton leaves witness protection to the warm embrace of 2GB’s Ray Hadley. He says he was unwell over the weekend (poor lamb!), and thus unable to front the media. Hadley does not ask him about his office’s involvement in the press release, but Dutton does say it was poorly worded.

“The operation was where the police found somebody they suspected weren’t here legally.. they would refer them off to the Border Force staff for checking,” he says.

Dutton then attacks Labor, stating it was an “absolute disgrace” for Shorten and Marles to be criticising Australian Border Force.

Crikey has filed a freedom of information request with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection seeking all communication around the creation of the original press release, including who signed off on it.

Peter Fray

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