Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

For years under this government, what is now the Home Affairs portfolio has operated in a political culture of complete impunity, no matter how incompetently its officials have behaved, and no matter how many times it placed people at risk.

We’re now seeing the results of that absence of accountability in coronavirus illnesses and deaths that stem directly from failings by the Australian Border Force (ABF).

The history of what was Immigration and Border Protection, since the merger of Immigration and Australian Customs in 2015, and which became Home Affairs in 2017, is a history of remarkable bungling, documented in a long line of audit reports and parliamentary committee inquiries.

They include a billion dollar tender process repeatedly stuffed up, a lack of oversight of compliance by visa holders, a spectacular blowout in illegal entries via airports, asylum seeker detainees killed and dying from lack of treatment, the detention and deportation of Australians, persistent cybersecurity failings, the abandonment of the 457 visa program, and the use of the Federal Police against journalists and whistleblowers for political purposes.

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But at no stage has the leadership of the portfolio accepted responsibility for those failings. 

Instead, journalists, refugee advocates, the Australian National Audit Office, the PNG government and asylum seekers themselves have all been blamed by Minister Peter Dutton or departmental officials at some point for failures within the portfolio — or they failed to understand that the problems didn’t actually exist and were the product of misinterpretation.

Even when the government itself admitted the 457 visa program had “lost credibility”, this failure somehow seemed to have occurred without anyone being responsible.

The coronavirus crisis should have been a crisis tailor-made for management by Home Affairs. Not merely was Home Affairs charged with keeping Australians safe, but it had responsibility for Australia’s borders and Australia’s biosecurity, it houses our emergency management and disaster preparedness functions, it has a major network across the region gathering information, and it oversees the Federal Police.

And Home Affairs understands the particular biosecurity threat posed by cruise ships. “Cruise ships are subject to customs, immigration and biosecurity controls when entering and/or departing Australia,” according to the Australian Border Force website.

In early March, Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram told Senate estimates:

We have worked hand-in-hand with the departments of health, agriculture, education, skills and employment, foreign affairs and trade, defence and industry to coordinate a holistic approach to the health emergency. Specifically, the ABF have been focusing on travel movements at borders and ports … we have continued to successfully enforce these measures, minimising the impact on travellers where possible through regular and thorough engagement, including with airlines, ports, maritime authorities and the cruise-ship industry.

On March 16, Scott Morrison announced that:

The Australian Government has also banned cruise ships from foreign ports (including round trip international cruises originating in Australia) from arriving at Australian ports for an initial 30 days, effective as at 11:59pm Sunday 15 March, 2020. This restriction will help avoid the risk of a cruise ship arriving with a mass outbreak of the virus and putting significant pressure on our health system.

But Home Affairs bungled again. Three days later, ABF and NSW Health waved 2700 passengers, over 500 of whom were ridden with coronavirus, off the Ruby Princess and into the community.

Currently, more than 10% of all virus cases in Australia were passengers on the ship, as well about a fifth of Australian deaths.

With another bungle came more excuses and blame-shifting. Outram blamed NSW Health for the disaster, in contradiction of Morrison’s March 16 restriction (which made clear the federal government would stop foreign ships) and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s attribution of blame to ABF.

This morning, Dutton claimed that cruise ship lines were also guilty of “lying” about the state of health aboard their ships.

That marks quite a turnaround in attitude toward cruise ship operators: prior to the crisis, Home Affairs boasted of how it worked with cruise lines to develop a “trusted operator model” to expedite immigration clearance for cruise ship passengers.

A number of cruise ships remain offshore of Sydney, and one in Perth, refusing to depart Australian waters. The head of Carnival Australia is demanding that the Ruby Princess again be allowed to dock in Sydney, claiming cruise lines support 20,000 jobs.

The premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, is frustrated with the failure of Home Affairs to end a stand-off with a cruise ship that refuses to leave Fremantle.

Remember that this is the portfolio that had no qualms about repeatedly forcing boats of asylum seekers back to Indonesia when they tried to enter Australian waters.

Yet it is apparently powerless to force the boats of “trusted operators” away.

Less clear is how many cases will result from another debacle, at Sydney Airport last week, when returning travellers were crowded together to access Customs, with ABF personnel reportedly saying the need for social distancing measures was “not their problem”.

That was blamed on Sydney Airport, which used to be government-owned but which was privatised in the 1990s, meaning no one can be held to account for what might lead to another cluster of infections — a good example of how privatisation has allowed politicians and officials to evade responsibility for bungles that once would have led to resignations.

The entire point of Home Affairs — and the draconian and ever-increasing powers it wields — is that it was supposed to unify previously disparate security functions to improve the security of Australians, including biosecurity.

There would be no more fragmentation, no more silo thinking, no more miscommunication between agencies around protecting Australians — we would have a tough-as-teak, bespoke super-portfolio dedicated to the task.

Hundreds of virus cases and multiple deaths later, all we’ve got from them is excuses. But we shouldn’t be surprised — it’s how the department has operated for years.