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The timing of a report that an asylum-seeker boat had been intercepted on its way to Australia has led to claims of manipulation and concerns over the Coalition’s links to the Sri Lankan government. By Karen Middleton.

Claims Coalition colluded in election day boat arrival

Then minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews in Fremantle in April.
Then minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews in Fremantle in April.
Credit: AAP Image / Trevor Collens

A former Australian diplomat to Sri Lanka is urging the new Australian government to widen an inquiry into the apparent politicisation of two boat interceptions on election day to include the Coalition’s relationship with what he calls a “corrupt” Sri Lankan regime.

Bruce Haigh, who served as deputy high commissioner to Sri Lanka in 1994, told The Saturday Paper he has had concerns about the Coalition’s links with the country’s leadership since the Abbott government donated two patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy soon after it was elected in 2013.

“One thing Australia has done is maintain a strong and close relationship with a corrupt government in relation to stopping the boats,” Haigh says. “And purely for their own domestic politics.”

The former diplomat alleges the Coalition has used its relationships to influence when boats bound for Australia leave – and do not leave – Sri Lanka.

“In my belief, the Australian government has been involved outside of normal channels with various agencies in Sri Lanka to prevent the boats coming to Australia,” Haigh says. “Within that relationship, there was the capacity to also send boats.”

On April 26, The Saturday Paper received a message from a Sri Lankan Australian, who asked to remain anonymous, saying he had been told that the departure of two boats carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia was being facilitated by Sri Lankan authorities. He said they were scheduled to arrive in Australian waters “around the 21st of May 2022, election date”, and they were designed to be “an election stunt”.

The man later said a friend had witnessed passengers boarding a boat at night in Colombo, in the presence of Sri Lankan police, two weeks earlier. The friend had said a second boat was also leaving from Trincomalee, in the country’s north.

The Saturday Paper was – and remains – unable to verify the allegations.

But on election day, The Australian newspaper carried a report revealing the Sri Lankan navy had intercepted a boat carrying 40 asylum seekers. The report quoted then Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews warning that this was a sign boats would restart under a Labor government.

“We know people smugglers are watching and waiting for a change in Australia’s government,” Andrews told the newspaper, “and they are already trying to start up their illegal trade on the eve of an election.”

Since then, members of the Sri Lankan community have told The Saturday Paper they had heard suggestions boats were coming in time for the election. Some recount how family members in Sri Lanka had received phone calls asking if they wanted to get on a boat.

One says this was surprising because, normally, boat trips were kept quiet for fear of people being caught before departure. “You tend to keep it secret,” the man told The Saturday Paper. “This wasn’t like that. Everybody knew a boat was leaving.”

Last Saturday morning, The Saturday Paper received a situation report containing further details of the Sri Lankan navy intercept. The situation report, which came from Sri Lanka, said the boat had been detected at 4.09pm local time on Friday, May 20, off Batticaloa, which is about 130 kilometres south of Trincomalee.

Dated May 21, it said the Sri Lankan navy had apprehended “40 individuals who attempted to illegally migrate to a foreign country via sea routes”. Another boat had been apprehended in the same area on May 18, carrying 19 people. It was not clear where either boat was headed.

Later on Saturday, the Australian Border Force (ABF) issued a media release revealing a boat had been intercepted. That statement appears to have then been used as the basis for a Liberal Party text message, sent to voters in marginal seats on Saturday afternoon, urging them to vote Liberal.

“BREAKING – Aust Border Force has intercepted an illegal boat trying to reach Aus,” the message read. “Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today.” It contained a hyperlink to Liberal Party authorisation.

This week, the newly elected Labor government asked the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, to investigate and report on how the media release came to be issued on election day. The announcement appeared to contravene both the caretaker conventions that apply in an election period and the previous government’s usual refusal to discuss “on-water matters”.

The then acting prime minister, Richard Marles, condemned both the media release and the messages. “The circumstances in which a media release was put out by the former government on Saturday, on election day – I mean, it was a disgrace,” Marles told Sky News on Monday. “This should never have been in the public domain. The text that was sent out by the Liberal Party in that moment made our country less safe, made our borders less secure.”

The ABF media release was published on its website about 1.30pm on Saturday. “A vessel has been intercepted in a likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka,” the statement said.

It did not indicate who had intercepted it, or when or where the incident had occurred. The release’s wording suggested the boat may have been outside Australian waters. It was unclear if it was referring to the boat the Sri Lankans had already announced or another.

Soon afterwards, journalists, including this correspondent, were receiving telephone calls drawing their attention to the statement on the website and advising that the boat had been intercepted off Christmas Island.

“The Australian Government’s policy remains unchanged,” the published statement said. “We will intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally and to safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin. Measures and safeguards are in place to enable actions and activities to be undertaken in accordance with Australian domestic law and Australia’s obligations under international law.”

This appeared to refer to the caretaker period, between the dissolution of parliament after an election is called and when a new government is formed. “In line with longstanding practice,” the statement said, “we will make no further comment.”

Yet its very existence made a big statement. In the four years since Scott Morrison became prime minister, ABF data shows it has intercepted five other boats. None was announced by media release. Instead, the ABF issues monthly summary activity reports that include basic information about boat interceptions.

Three of the previous boats arrived in May, July and August 2019 – in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 election, which Labor had been expected to win. All came from Sri Lanka.

Updated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet last year, the guide to the caretaker conventions says officials should “avoid publicly explaining or promoting Government policies” during the caretaker period.

Given the Coalition government usually refused to divulge operational details, publishing such a statement at any time was unorthodox. Publishing it on election day rang loud alarm bells within Labor, sections of the public service and the Australian Defence Force.

Further fuelling concerns was the fact that it bore the name, rank and title of a uniformed ADF officer, Rear Admiral Justin Jones, currently seconded to serve as commander of the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, within the Department of Home Affairs.

Defence is obliged to abide not only by the caretaker conventions but also a nonpartisanship convention in which the ADF and its members avoid advocating for political parties or politicians. Parliamentarians are supposed to avoid politicising the ADF.

In the lead-up to the 2019 election, Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell interrupted a news conference by then Defence minister Christopher Pyne and insisted the uniformed military officers standing behind the minister step away while Pyne answered political questions.

In written questions this week, The Saturday Paper asked Defence if General Campbell or departmental secretary Greg Moriarty had concerns about Rear Admiral Jones putting his name to the election-day statement, given he remains a uniformed ADF officer. Defence declined to respond. A spokeswoman telephoned to say all questions should go to the ABF. Former Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews said this week she “saw” the ABF statement “before it was released”. Asked on ABC News Breakfast if she authorised its release, she said “Border Force would have been releasing it in any event” and that it was important for “transparency”.

She said: “I had nothing to do with the text messages. I had no knowledge of them.”

The Saturday Paper asked both Home Affairs and Border Force who ordered and who authorised the media release and whether Rear Admiral Jones knew his name was being attached. The ABF declined to answer, saying the new government had launched an investigation.

“The acting prime minister has requested a review into the circumstances of the statement that was published on the ABF Newsroom 21 May 2022,” the ABF said in a statement to The Saturday Paper. “The report from the secretary will be provided to the government for its consideration. As such, it would be inappropriate to comment on the matter at this time. Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders does not comment on operational matters that could disclose tactics, techniques and procedures to the organized criminals/people smugglers that it aims to deter.”

In a general statement, issued separately, Rear Admiral Jones said passengers on the boat had been assessed on “health and protection grounds by highly trained and specialised staff” for whether they deserved protection under international refugee law.

“All passengers were screened out from evoking Australia’s protection obligations,” Rear Admiral Jones’s statement said.

Sources on Christmas Island told The Saturday Paper they saw a boat burning off the island on Saturday. A marine traffic website showed an ABF vessel, Ocean Shield, approached a boat west of the island in the late morning of Friday, May 20.

An aircraft arrived on the island on Monday and departed again in the early hours of Tuesday. Richard Marles confirmed later that day that the passengers on the intercepted boat had been flown back to Sri Lanka.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Morrison’s last boat".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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