Your office was briefed on Operation Fortitude, why didn’t you intervene?
PETER DUTTON: Well, look, we need to deal with the facts in relation to this matter, because there’s a lot of hysteria and I think Mr Shorten and Mr Marles’ attack on the Australian Border Force Officers today has been disgraceful. I think it needs to be called for what it is.
Now in terms of the process here: There were 16,000 operations, compliance operations, that were conducted by Australian Border Force, by Customs and Immigration, from the period of 2012.
There were 372 joint operations conducted by the Australian Border Force and its predecessor since that period.
So to put into perspective the number of operations the Department is involved in, there are several thousand a year.
Now, my office received a ‘for noting’ brief, that is to say they received a brief to say that this operation was going to take place. Essentially if you’re going to get media inquiries you should know that this operation is underway.
No Minister – not me, not my predecessors – Liberal or Labor – involve themselves in operational matters.
The operational matters are put together by the Department, and the Victorian Police in this case put this operation together, Australian Border Force joined them and the operation was due to take place in Melbourne.
The idea of the operation was that there was to be intercepts by the Victorian Police, if there was a concern about whether or not that person was a valid visa holder for example or had work rights as a taxi driver, then that person would be referred to the ABF officer to check our databases to see if they had overstayed their visa, to see if they were working within the conditions of their visa. That is standard practise.
Now, somehow, there’s a conspiracy theory running around from the left of, you know, the media and other areas of the commentariat within this country that somehow there’s a conspiracy to stop people in the street. It’s a nonsense.
I think the fact that the Labor Party originally said ‘yes this is a good idea,’ and then Mr Shorten has jumped on this bandwagon of hysteria in the last 24 hours shows how desperate he is as a leader and how unfit he is, frankly, to lead this nation.
So that’s the sequence of events. I’m happy to answer any questions about it, but that is the sequence of events and it is no different to other operations that would have been conducted, and that’s the facts as they are.
JOURNALIST: You said it was a conspiracy, but that conspiracy started in black and white in a press release, so it hasn’t just come from nowhere. They said they would stop people that crossed their paths in the street…
PETER DUTTON: … No. The Australian Border Force made a mistake in terms of the language that they used, which a Regional Commander’s decision in Victoria.
That Regional Commander is a fine officer, and I commend the work that he does, but he made a mistake in relation to this press release, and everybody admits that. ABF admitted that and the Commissioner said as such on Friday.
The point that I would make is that the idea of the operation was that the Victorian Police would intercept taxi drivers and others to see if their vehicles were registered, if they were road worthy, if they had the right licenses and if they had concerns about that particular person they would refer that person to the ABF officers to check whether their visa was valid.
Now that’s the context that we’re operating in here, and if you look at the words of the Commander in that context then his statement makes sense.
It wasn’t appropriate because it allowed people to interpret it beyond that. There is no power for ABF officers to stop people in the streets, and that was never the desire of this operation, it’s never the want of this Government.
The ABF officers have to ensure the integrity of our visa process and that’s why there were involved in this operation with the Victorian Police. The words were unfortunate and, as the Commissioner said, clumsy, but they were in the context of people being referred to them, coming into their interest, coming into the domain of those people, the ABF officers there, if they’ve been referred by the police.
That’s the context here.
JOURNALIST: Will there be any disciplinary action at all?
PETER DUTTON: That’s an issue for the Department, nothing to do with Ministers. Ministers don’t become involved in these operational matters.
If Ministers were in there saying who should be interviewed and who shouldn’t and this is the way in which this operation should be conducted, then I think that would be an abuse of process.
JOURNALIST: But surely you’d know if the Department were planning to take any disciplinary action?
PETER DUTTON: Well, as I say, it’s an issue for the Department.
All I would say is that the officers that I find within the ABF are well trained, they’re professional, they do a great job and all Australians would want them to do their job.
Now I think there’s a lot, frankly, feeding into this, of people’s, you know, predisposition in relation to the issue of boats.
There are some on the Left, and you saw this in the protest group in Melbourne last week, essentially that group was made up not of mums and dads or concerned citizens, this was a CFMEU who were picketing down at Parliament House who ran up to this press conference with people from the National Socialist Alliance. They conducted this protest and that’s what took place.
I think people just need to look at it in perspective. The officers do a good job, and people who don’t like our border policy or don’t like our boat policy shouldn’t be taking that out on the ABF officers.
JOURNALIST: Has this done huge damage to the Border Force? I mean now it’s being described as ‘Border Farce.’
PETER DUTTON: I think what’s it has done a lot of damage to is Bill Shorten because of the way in which he has hysterically reacted to the situation.
He was measured in his first comments when he hopped off a plane, was asked about this matter and he had a measured response.
Mr Marles has ramped it up to the point today where he’s questioning the training and professionalism of the Australian Border Force officers.
I think that is quite shameful and I think it show their inexperience when it comes to dealing with very important issues, particularly around border security and around the integrity process of our visa system.
JOURNALIST: With that in mind, would it have been helpful for you to come out sooner and clarify the issue and also speak in support of these Border Force officials?
PETER DUTTON: No, the Commissioner made a statement on Friday which I thought in the circumstances, given that this was a low-level operation, given that the Prime Minister has been out doing doorstops on the weekend, that that was entirely appropriate.
JOURNALIST: So you weren’t missing in action, Minister?
PETER DUTTON: I was in bed yesterday sick for the day, I didn’t get out of bed, I’m sorry to say, which is bad news for my critics because I was able to climb from my death bed.
But the fact is that I thought the Commissioner entirely appropriately handled this thing on Friday.
Frankly people are using this as a bit of stalking horse for their concerns about the work that the ABF does when it comes to securing our borders or running detention centres or whatever else.
I think we’ve called it out for what it is, but I think the one who’s got egg on his face here is Bill Shorten and Mr Marles because their responses demonstrate they’re not fit for Government.
JOURNALIST: Will there be any changes within your office so that if similar situations come up alarm bells will ring?
PETER DUTTON: There’s, look, just in terms of what was sent to my office, it was sent to my office for noting that there was to be an operation.
We will review the processes with the Department. There are two Deputy Secretaries within the Department who have been tasked to have a look at the clearance arrangements for these press releases, but as you can image there’s a swathe of information that comes up from the Department each day.
This was an operation involving a few Border Force officers to check taxi drivers referred to them by the Victorian Police.
Contrast that to an operation that was run the week before, in relation to a cocaine shipment.
I had conversations with the Commissioner about that particular operation and the way in which that was to be managed, from a media perspective, because I thought it was an important issue and obviously a high level operation.
That was quite a contrast to the low-level operations that we’ve just spoken about.
JOURNALIST: When you said the briefing note was sent, was it a draft media release that was sent to your office?
PETER DUTTON: There was, as I’ve said before, there was a note and there was an attachment of a media release.
The media release wasn’t read because it was sent up to us, the brief essentially was sent up to us for noting, not for clearing, not for approval, and that’s noted in the email.
Again, the view from my office was that this was simply to give us notification in case we got media queries about this operation being conducted with the Victorian Police.
Alright. Ok, thanks very much.