The federal coalition should “hang their head in shame” after an inquiry found public servants were pressured to reveal an asylum seeker boat arrival on election day, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil says.
But her Liberal predecessor Karen Andrews says she didn’t pressure anyone about the intercept on May 21, denying accusations the former government had tried to compromise caretaker provisions.
Following his election win, Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ordered the Home Affairs Department to conduct an inquiry into the incident.
Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo’s report released on Friday found Ms Andrews, following the orders of then prime minister Scott Morrison, put the heat on public servants to issue a statement while an on-water operation was still in play.
The vessel from Sri Lanka was being turned back on its way to Australia.
“Anyone who would be the subject of a damning report like this surely would come forward, hang their head in shame and apologise to the Australian people,” Ms O’Neil said on Saturday.
“The former minister … was asked this morning whether she asked her department to act outside their apolitical mandate. She denied it.
“The report released yesterday shows the exact opposite.
“In fact, the minister at the time directly asked public servants that reported to her to support the political interests of the government and in doing so undermined our democracy on the day of an election.”
Mr Pezzullo’s report said the statement was issued by the Operation Sovereign Borders Commander after Ms Andrews repeatedly urged officials to make the information public, saying “the prime minister wants a statement”.
Ms Andrews said on Saturday there was “absolutely no pressure” on officials to get the details out.
“It just needed to be put out there so that it was clear that there had been a vessel that had been intercepted,” Ms Andrews told Nine Network.
But Mr Pezzullo found that “the pressure was exacerbated by the direction to draft and publish the statement within 15 minutes.”
He also noted her office told officials that some were “furious” when it wasn’t published in that time frame.
Text messages about the boat were later sent out by the Liberal Party, telling Australians to vote Liberal to “keep our borders secure”.
Ms Andrews said there was no breach of caretaker provisions, conventions ensuring a bipartisan approach to the government of the nation once an election is called.
“I was asked by the prime minister to issue the statement and that is exactly what I did,” Ms Andrews said.
Ms Andrews said she just wanted a statement that “stuck to the facts” and it was a “lawful request”.
Ms O’Neil said the public servants who stood up to Ms Andrews and her office had shown bravery and were “great patriots” in the face of a government that “had after nine years completely lost its moral compass”.
“The former government had a duty to protect Australians … they prioritised their own political interests over the national interest,” she said.
Ms O’Neil said the incident strengthened the need for a federal anti-corruption watchdog.
“If we needed an example in Australian politics today of the need for a federal ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) then this would be it,” she said.
Mr Pezzullo found the “pressure placed on officials” to release the news was made worse by time issues, as Mr Morrison was about to hold a press conference.
The former government also wanted information about the boat intercept given to “selected journalists”, which Mr Pezzullo at the time rejected, saying this should happen “under no circumstances”.
But the information had already been leaked, with one reporter asking Mr Morrison about it during his press conference before it was made public.
After the statement was published on the Australian Border Force website, officials refused requests to “amplify” the news by putting it on social media or sending it straight to journalists, the report found.
Ms Andrews reiterated on Saturday that she had no knowledge about the texts that were later sent out by the Liberal Party to voters.