Scott Morrison’s staff conveyed a clear message to border force officials through Karen Andrews’ office on election day that they wanted the department to publicise the interception of a boat from Sri Lanka, Guardian Australia understands.
While an investigation into the politically charged incident is ongoing, people familiar with the events last Saturday have confirmed that on current information, staff working for Andrews made it clear to officials that Morrison wanted the boat interception publicised. They also conveyed that they wanted the opposition briefed about the incident, given the caretaker convention was in force.
Border force officials began to draft a statement confirming the interception and prepared separate briefing materials for the opposition, but made it clear to senior ministerial staffers that any publication of the interception, or briefing of the opposition, could only proceed on the authority of the home affairs minister. Political staff did not have the authority to direct officials.
People familiar with events on the day have told Guardian Australia Andrews’ ministerial staff subsequently conveyed to border force officials that the two actions – proceeding with the statement and briefing Labor – had been authorised.
As officials mulled the highly unusual political intervention, they were of the view that any such direction from Andrews was lawful and within ministerial authority.
Operation Sovereign Borders operates directly under the authority of the minister for home affairs and has done since Morrison established the deterrence structure in 2013.
While they were confident the Andrews direction was within the scope of her powers, officials were of the view that a judgment call about whether or not the direction was consistent with the spirit of the caretaker convention was a matter for their political masters.
Andrews’ office confirmed to Guardian Australia that she had been given a “copy of the statement ahead of its publication”, something she had previously told the ABC.
But a spokesperson said Andrews’ office was never asked to approve the publication of the media release.
Mike Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, has asked for a forensic chronology of the events to be prepared to brief the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and the incoming minister for home affairs. A report about the incident is expected to be handed to the government on Monday.
The unusual media release from border force officials paved the way for a last-ditch political offensive by the Liberal campaign, which pushed texts to voters across key electorates on Saturday afternoon warning them the only way they could maintain secure borders was by voting Liberal.
Last Saturday, a NSW Liberal party spokesperson confirmed the party had sent the text, adding “as Australians go to vote today it is important that they are informed about the choice that is before them”.
At midday on election day, Morrison confirmed the interception after voting at Lilli Pilli public school. “That vessel has been intercepted in accordance with the policies of government and they’re following those normal protocols,” the then prime minister told reporters.
“I can simply say this. I’ve been here to stop this boat, but in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today. In the interests of full transparency in the middle of an election campaign, the Labor party was advised of this”.
Albanese said on Friday Morrison’s office had contacted his office on Saturday afternoon about the boat arrival.
The prime minister said his office had indicated to Morrison’s staff it would be “entirely inappropriate for this event to be politicised”, calling it “a clear breach of the caretaker conventions” of government during an election.
Albanese accused the Coalition of engaging in “a disgraceful act” and “an abuse of proper processes”.
“There was nothing normal about the protocols that were not observed here,” Albanese said in an interview on ABC AM radio. “This was a decision made by Scott Morrison in a desperate attempt to run a last-minute scare campaign.”
Albanese noted that Morrison, in his former role as immigration minister, had previously refused to comment on “on-water matters”.
“Very clearly, this statement was made so that it could facilitate the sending of, we are not sure how many, but potentially many millions of text messages to voters in a last-minute scare campaign,” Albanese said.
“It was an entire abuse of proper processes and a disgraceful act from a government which was prepared to politicise everything but solve nothing.
“It just showed that the government had really lost perspective. They were prepared to politicise anything and everything … this was a new low.”
The prime minister said he had confidence in Pezzullo.
The deputy PM, Richard Marles, told a Melbourne press conference that the incident had “risked lives”.
“What’s completely clear is that the Liberal party does not care about the national interest. It only had regard for their political interests,” he said.
“In this press release and in the texts that followed, we saw our borders become less secure. We saw lives risked. We saw the national consensus around border security undermined.”
Marles stopped short of criticising Rear Adm Justin Jones, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, in whose name the press release was issued.
“This was an unusual event where a matter which should never have been in the public domain was placed in the public domain,” he said.
“The issue here is the actions of the former government. The former government sought to inject politics into a matter of national security.”
The Liberal frontbencher Stuart Robert, the former employment minister, also appeared on ABC radio on Friday morning. He said he was not involved in the boat announcement, but didn’t back away from it.
“I can’t comment on it, having not being involved, but I think all Australians understand Labor, by virtue of history, is incredibly weak on boat arrivals,” Robert said.
“I won’t be taking lectures from the Labor party on caretaker conventions or boat arrivals.”
In the ABC interview earlier this week, when asked whether she authorised the statement, Andrews at first did not answer directly but said the media release was a “very factual statement”.
“I think it was an important thing to do, given the fact that it was election day and there needed to be transparency. There was also immediately a briefing offered to the Labor party,” she said.
Pressed again by journalist Michael Rowland, she replied “I saw the statement before it was released. There is a secondary issue of texts that were sent out. I had nothing to do with the text messages.”