After the last-minute cancellation of a security operation on the streets of Melbourne involving officers of Australia’s new border protection agency, the Immigration Minister’s office admitted to receiving an advanced copy of a press release detailing the crackdown on visa fraud but no one read it.
The operation in Melbourne was called off on Friday after public outcry over the suggestion the officers would be on the streets of Melbourne “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.
Mr Dutton said his office received the press release but it was neither reviewed nor cleared because the planned operation was routine.
He said there was never any intention for the Border Force to conduct random visa checks during the operation.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Saturday denied he or his office had prior knowledge of the joint-agency Operation Fortitude, which was cancelled by Victorian police within hours of being announced.
Mr Abbott said the press release was “over the top and wrong”.
“I want to make it absolutely crystal clear, as far as this Government is concerned, people will never be stopped in the street randomly and asked for their visa details,” he said.
“That’s the sort of thing that would never, ever happen in this country.”
Opposition says ‘blame starts at the top’
But ALP leader Bill Shorten has accused Mr Abbott of trying to sheet home blame over the debacle to a “mid-level official”.
“The blame starts at the top. Leadership’s about taking the bad news as well as the good news,” Mr Shorten said.
“Stop blaming the people in uniforms for what goes wrong and start taking some responsibility.”
Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Dutton’s explanation was not good enough.
“This is an astounding admission which portrays an incompetent minister,” Mr Marles said.
“Now that we know that this did go through the Minister’s office, it only heightens the need for the Minister to come out of hiding and face the Australian people.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the State Government, Victoria Police and the community would never condone such an operation.
“You saw a very, very Victorian response as people literally took to the streets to protest against something that was ill-conceived,” he said.
“I want to make this point very clearly, [it was] not something supported by my Government, not something supported by Victoria Police.”
Mr Andrews said he was contacted by multicultural leaders about the incident.
“I had that many text messages from leaders of our multicultural communities, from those for whom these sorts of stopping people and quizzing them and the essential profiling you would need to do to undertake that task brings back some very stark memories of great tragedy and fear,” he said.
PM on the defensive
Mr Abbott said it was to be a “standard law enforcement operation” and anyone suspected of having a visa issue would be referred to ABF officers in “the normal way”.
“Nothing untoward happened except for the issue of a poorly worded press release,” he said.
When asked if he or his office was aware of the nature of the operation and of ABF’s involvement, Mr Abbott repeatedly said “nope”.
ABF commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg confirmed on Saturday the initial media statement was “clumsily worded” and approved at “low-level” by the Commander for Victoria and Tasmania Don Smith, who was directly quoted in the statement.
Following public backlash over the crackdown, the ABF issued another statement saying: “To be clear, the ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets … the ABF does not target of the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.”
A scheduled press conference to reveal details of Operation Fortitude had to be cancelled, after demonstrators began assembling outside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station to protest against the operation.