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Australia Peter Dutton's office was suspected of leaking 'classified' medevac information

21:40  22 january  2020
21:40  22 january  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a close up of Peter Dutton looking at the camera: An unknown member of Minister Peter Dutton's office was suspected of leaking medevac information to the media. (ABC News: Jed Cooper)© Provided by ABC Health An unknown member of Minister Peter Dutton's office was suspected of leaking medevac information to the media. (ABC News: Jed Cooper)

The office of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was suspected of leaking information it was told was classified about the cost of medically evacuating refugees to Taiwan, as the Government geared up to campaign against newly passed medevac legislation last year.

The disclosure of the information concerned the secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Michael Pezzullo, so greatly that he requested the matter be referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

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In February 2019, parliament passed new legislation that provided greater power to medical practitioners to transfer asylum seekers and refugees with medical conditions to Australia for care.

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The legislation passed after concerns were raised by former staff on Nauru and Manus Island about delays in urgent medical evacuations to Australia. It was strongly opposed by the Government and was eventually repealed in December 2019.

Documents obtained by 7.30 under Freedom of Information laws show that an unknown member of Mr Dutton's office verbally requested details of the costs to medically evacuate refugees to Taiwan for treatment.

An email was sent later that day on March 8, 2019, by Australian Border Force commander Sneha Chatterjee providing a costing of $260,000 to $300,000 to the ministerial staffer, but warned them the information was classified.

"As always, please note that the information contained in this email is classified and should not be publicly released without the authority of the Department of Home Affairs," Ms Chatterjee wrote.

"In accordance with our long-standing practices, should you wish for unclassified media lines to be prepared in relation to this issue please contact the Home Affairs media coordination team."

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A day later, that same information then appeared in an article in The Courier Mail setting out the cost to taxpayers of $300,000 for a transfer to Taiwan.

Leak referred to federal police for investigation

The Department of Home Affairs referred the information contained in the article to the AFP on March 18 as an alleged unauthorised disclosure.

The AFP's Offshore and Sensitive Investigations team, which handles matters relating to alleged unauthorised disclosures, then commenced an investigation.

At some point during their investigation, federal agents determined that it would take no further action on the case. It is unclear if this was because the information had since been declassified by either the department or minister.

7.30 put questions to Mr Dutton about the circumstances of the disclosure. A spokeswoman said "the minister has no comment".

It is not suggested that Mr Dutton was personally involved in the disclosure of the information.

AFP lost 'time and effort' on investigation

The incident appears to have caused some tensions between the department and the AFP over how the referral was handled.

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In July 2019, the AFP sought a meeting with the department to advise that it had finalised the investigation and intended to take no further action.

In an internal email before the meeting, the coordinator of Offshore and Sensitive Investigations told Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz: "The main purpose of the meeting from my perspective is to ensure that departments are making all the appropriate enquires before matters are hurriedly referred to the AFP on the request of Department Secretary.

"In this matter enquiries by the HA Secretary with the MHAO [Minister for Home Affairs Office] would have saved the AFP a lot of time and effort.

"Department secretary's needs [sic] to start owning some of these challenging conversation."

On the day that some documents were first released to 7.30 relating to this case in October 2019, the Department of Home Affairs released a statement saying that "the referral to the AFP was erroneous".

A spokeswoman for the AFP told 7.30 that "following changes to the AFP's referral process earlier this year, referrals must now identify the harm to the Department, national security or Australia's interests now and/or in the future.

"The department and portfolio are aligned with the new referral processes," she said.

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