01 February 2014
Asylum-seeker inquiry: customs 'don't give a damn' about media coverage
Immigration minister Scott Morrison: 'My officials leave worrying about Q&A and AM and all of those things to me.'
Australia's customs chief has told a Senate hearing that authorities 'don't give a damn' about media coverage, as the Abbott government came under renewed pressure over its refusal to release details about asylum-seeker boat turnback operations.
A Labor and Greens-dominated Senate committee questioned customs, defence and immigration officials over the government's decision not to provide requested documents about border protection operations on the basis of 'public interest immunity'.
The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, became the first lower house minister to front an upper house inquiry in more than 20 years.
He defended the government's approach to the release of information, but was more willing than usual to confirm Australia had indeed been turning or towing asylum boats back towards Indonesia.
It is the policy and practice of this government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter our waters, and where safe to do so, remove it beyond Australia's waters and contiguous zone, Morrison said.
But he added it was not Australia's policy to venture as far as entering Indonesian territory during such operations and where this had occurred it had triggered an apology and review. It was a reference to the government's recent admissions that Australian ships had inadvertently entered Indonesian waters on several occasions, further straining the relationship with the key regional neighbour.
In mid-November, the Senate passed a motion calling for the tabling of documents relating to any 'on-water operations' that had occurred since the 7 September election. The motion, moved by the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, requested briefings, emails or correspondence covering matters including the timing of events, unauthorised maritime arrivals, distress calls, passengers' nationalities, safety-of-life-at-sea incidents, and boat turnbacks and towbacks.
The motion had an ongoing effect, ordering the government to produce such documents within 24 hours of an on-water event. It was directed at the minister representing Morrison in the upper house, Michaelia Cash. The government claimed a public interest immunity, saying the material could endanger lives and damage national security, defence or international relations.
Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell told the hearing on Friday the release of sensitive documents requested by the Senate could affect Australia's relationship with neighbouring countries.
Campbell said information that was released to the public could be digested by several different audiences, including people smugglers and people who might want to use their services. Smugglers would like such details to help understand the operations and how to evade authorities or trigger a search and rescue mission.
My overriding priority in prosecuting my duties is the safety of all involved, he said.
Campbell said it was fair to ask why details about past operations, several months ago, could not be released now. He said people smugglers operated in a highly competitive environment and while some may have encountered Australian authorities implementing Operation Sovereign Borders, it should not be assumed they shared that information with their competitors.
Morrison and Campbell sought to emphasise the reduction in boat arrivals witnessed in recent months, although they expressed the specifics in slightly different terms.
In his opening remarks, Morrison said: 'Since December 19, over six weeks ago, not a single boat has successfully made it to Australia and to illegally enter our waters. For the first time in six years no such boat has got to Australia in January.
Campbell focused explicitly on the lack of people transferred to immigration officials. It's now been 43 days since any illegal maritime arrivals have been transferred into immigration authorities' control, he said.
Morrison said the two statements were not inconsistent, but senators pursued the fact that the number of boats that were heading towards Australia and forced back towards their source country was not disclosed.
Morrison would not reveal how many boats had entered Australian waters since 19 December, saying: 'That would go beyond what our procedures for dealing with information of that kind.
Michael Pezzullo, the chief executive officer of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, acknowledged that asylum seekers may come into the custody of defence force or customs personnel as part of operations at sea without necessarily being transferred into the Immigration Department's control. Asylum seekers were counted in such figures if transferred to immigration authorities on Christmas Island, for example.
Pezzullo issued a strong defence of the information blackout.
We frankly don't give a damn about the media cycle, what's going to be said on morning radio and Q&A and all the rest of it. That for us is just the ephemeral, he said.
What matters to us is how do you successfully execute and implement a government policy as directed by the government just like we faithfully executed the policy of the previous government and do it in a way that renders safe execution the top priority both for our personnel and the people arriving. If you are providing a running commentary on what you're doing, where your assets are, you're giving away every single advantage that general Campbell is so concerned to preserve.
Morrison added: My officials leave worrying about Q&A and AM and all of those things to me.
The inquiry then turned to the Border Protection television show, which describes border protection operations at airports and other locations.
On one type of border security the Australian public is told they are not allowed to know, but in another they are, said Hanson-Young.
Morrison was asked why there was a difference between the reporting of information in the television show and information about Operation Sovereign Borders, but he rejected the comparison.
What we're talking about here today goes well beyond just techniques. These are ongoing live operations that we are running here, he said.
Later in the inquiry Campbell also questioned Hanson-Young's description of Operation Sovereign Borders as a covert operation.
I am concerned by your characterisation of Operation Sovereign Borders as covert, he said.
Morrison said there is nothing covert about the government's policy or practice.