View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison suddenly finds his world out of control

Scott Morrison is coping with problems on multiple fronts. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Abbott government, so scathing in opposition of Labor’s administration lapses, is now coping with the fallout of two serious foul ups in its asylum seeker operations, as well as the Manus Island disaster.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison has been forced to admit his department had “inadvertently” provided access through its website to the personal details of about 10,000 asylum seekers.

This came as the government released a report finding there were six “inadvertent” incursions by Australian vessels into Indonesian waters in December-January.

The government had not, incidentally, voluntarily ‘fessed up to these mistakes. The gross breach of privacy was revealed by Guardian Australia on Wednesday. The Australian got on to the border breach in January; the government had to make a grovelling apology to the Indonesians and set up an inquiry.

The government is now on the warpath for culprits on both these fronts.

The private data of thousands of asylum seekers was linked by mistake to a regular statistics report the department posts. Guardian Australia reported it contained names, nationalities, locations, arrival dates and boat arrival information. It said that everyone held in a mainland detention centre and on Christmas Island was there, and several thousand people living in the community.

Morrison, who accepted responsibility as minister, described it as an “unacceptable incident” and a “serious breach of privacy”; his departmental head would keep him informed of what was being done “including any disciplinary measures that may be taken”. The department has called in KPMG to investigate; it will provide an interim report next week. The privacy commissioner is also on the case.

The disclosure of the personal details could be a risk for some families in asylum seekers’ home countries and may complicate the assessment process and the return of people whose claims are rejected. Morrison says that there will be no general ruling – to the extent the disclosures have to be taken into account, that would be on a case-by-case basis.

An Australian soldier on the ground at Manus Island assisting with works for the expansion. Sgt W Guthrie

The report into the Indonesian border breach, done under the auspices of the chiefs of the defence force and customs, goes out of its way to stress it was all a ghastly mistake - that government policy is for ships not to go over the line.

Each of the six incursions by navy and customs vessels “occurred as a result of miscalculation of Indonesian maritime boundaries by Australian crews” who had “intended to remain outside Indonesian waters”.

According to the report, headquarters identified the need to obtain authoritative information on Indonesia’s sea boundaries. Despite this, staff supervising the tactical missions “effectively devolved the obligation to remain outside Indonesian waters to vessel commanders. Headquarters staff accepted, without proper review, that the proposed patrol plans would result in vessels remaining outside Indonesian waters,” the report said.

“The focus of mission preparation, planning, execution and oversight was on the safe conduct of operations. Despite clear guidance to operational headquarters and assigned units, the imperative to remain outside Indonesian waters did not receive adequate attention during mission execution or oversight.”

In a nutshell, too much was left to the crews and they were more focused on the dangers of what they were doing than precisely where they were.

Although there is no mention of specific tow backs or turn backs, the import seems clear. The crews’ overwhelming preoccupation with “safety” suggests they were trying to get in as close as they could to the Indonesian shore to ensure there were no accidents. Morrison refused to say whether the ships turned their lights off, as has been alleged.

The report found that headquarters should have given commanders information about Indonesian maritime boundaries, and this should also have been available to shore HQ overseeing operations.

Navy officers had received the required training and experience to calculate the boundaries; customs officers had not. The review recommended better training, procedures and documents, and there is to be scrutiny to determine whether there have been “any individual lapses in professional conduct”.

We only have the unclassified version of this report, so we don’t know the specifics that might give a better explanation of how the seemingly inexplicable happened. Opposition spokesman Richard Marles, who received a briefing on the report, has called for the release of the full version.

Richard Marles has called for the release of the full report. AAP/Alan Porritt

The political “pub test” for this particular document will be how it is received in Jakarta. The Indonesians have been briefed and given the unclassified version. Earlier there have been accounts of Indonesian navy scepticism about the breaches being inadvertent; Morrison professes optimism that Jakarta will now be convinced.

Morrison’s most difficult front at the moment remains Manus, with more details emerging about the clash that killed one man and left many people badly injured. The latest information is coming from the media rather than the government (which has ordered a standard inquiry, fending off calls to make it more independent). The accounts point to the problems raised when so much of the law and order responsibility is in the hands of the Papua New Guinea police.

The government has dispatched to Manus 51 of the 100 extra security personnel it put on standby, as well as the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Angus Campbell, who will do whatever he thinks is needed and provide the minister with more information from on the ground.

As for Morrison, who is notorious for acting as all supreme: this week he is receiving a salutary lesson about the limits of control.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.