The Australian government has hit out at “outlandish” claims that it covered up the role of federal officers in informally clearing passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship after confusing flu and Covid-19 test results.
But Labor stepped up its calls on Friday for the government to allow federal officials to give evidence before the New South Wales-ordered special commission of inquiry, after documents revealed commonwealth lawyers had resisted a summons for an agriculture department official to appear for questioning.
The opposition’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, accused the government of “covering up the events that happened on the Ruby Princess” in March.
“When Scott Morrison said his government would ‘cooperate’ with the New South Wales special commission of inquiry, he wasn’t telling the truth. It was just another marketing line from Scott Morrison,” Keneally told reporters at the overseas passenger terminal in Sydney’s Circular Quay on Friday.
Guardian Australia specifically asked Morrison at a press conference on 21 April to guarantee the commonwealth would fully cooperate with Bret Walker SC’s inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle and not take steps to stymie him getting evidence from federal agencies.
“We always cooperate with royal commissions,” the prime minister replied.
A federal government submission to the inquiry confirms that the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) wrote to the commission on 3 July “declining the special commissioner’s invitation” for an agriculture official to appear for questioning.
On 7 July, the commissioner issued the federal official a summons to appear – but the government wrote back the following day “respectfully requesting that the summons be withdrawn on the basis that the special commissioner lacked the power to issue it”.
According to the federal government submission, this stance was consistent with the commonwealth’s “longstanding position in relation to compulsory notices issued by state commissions of inquiry purporting to bind commonwealth officers”.
Walker declined to withdraw the summons, but told federal lawyers he did not intend to issue a warrant to require the appearance while “noting that she remained potentially subject to prosecution (although that matter was out of the special commission’s hands)”.
According to section 25 of the Special Commissions of Inquiry Act 1983, a failure to comply with a summons may be punishable by a penalty of up to about $1,000.
The AGS raised concern about the official’s “continued exposure to potential criminal liability” but said the commonwealth would assist the commission through a further voluntary submission.
These were the submissions that contained new revelations about the actions of federal officers in dealing with the Ruby Princess.
They show that after the Ruby Princess arrived in Sydney at 2.30am on 19 March, an Australian Border Force officer (Officer O) gave verbal authorisation to disembark between 6am and 7am – before test results had been obtained from passengers including at least 11 in isolation.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said on Friday the federal government was cooperating with the inquiry and had provided it with “full and frank evidence”.
Pressed on whether the government had covered up the ABF’s role in mistakenly allowing the Ruby Princess passengers to disembark, Porter said he had “not seen anything that would suggest that’s the case”.
“I actually find that a somewhat outlandish proposition,” he told reporters in Perth.
Porter stood by the federal government’s position that the NSW government was to blame for clearing passengers to disembark.
“There are lines of clear responsibility and the assessment of health of passengers and the ability of those passengers, according to law, to disembark, is the responsibility of state health, whether that is in NSW or in other states,” he said.
The documents show that at 7.31am on 19 March, a second ABF officer exchanged text messages with the NSW Health department, which advised the ship was “low risk” despite “elevated numbers of flu” and “all are OK to debark”.
Officer O was advised by a port agent that test results had come back negative. At 8.38am, the officer received a file prepared by the ship’s doctor. The form displayed a cross in the “tests required” field for Covid-19 PCR and a table with results, the final column of which recorded passengers’ “rapid flu test result” as “A+B Negative”.
The commonwealth’s submission said the ABF officer “quickly reviewed” this document and “misinterpreted” it, advising fellow officers that “all tests returned back NEGATIVE”.
Officer O then created a table indicating that all passengers had returned negative results for Covid-19 tests, and forwarded it to the agriculture department, which is responsible for biosecurity.
The new details were first reported by the ABC’s 7.30 program on Thursday. The ABF said in a statement issued on Thursday evening that it “strongly refutes” the reporting, because its responsibilities did not include preventing the disembarkation of passengers or crew for human health reasons.
“Any misinterpretation by ABF officers of test results did not make a difference as to whether passengers were cleared to disembark the Ruby Princess,” the statement said. “Human health is not the responsibility of the ABF.”