Tom Connell interview with Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram APM

TOM CONNELL: Welcome back. Well, a key ICAC witness was able to leave the country earlier this year. Labor’s questioning how that happened, essentially apportioning blame to Border Force. The Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram joins me now for more on this.

Thanks for your time. Let’s just outline what has happened here. So the witness was Monica Hao, a migration agent. She was due to give evidence at ICAC in September. She was able to leave in August. What happened?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Good afternoon, Tom. Firstly, let me say that as the Commissioner of Border Force I’m pretty offended by suggestions that we lack integrity or there is anything sinister going on here. The first thing I’d say, I’ve worked at the ICAC previously. I used to run their investigations and I’ve worked in law enforcement. To prevent somebody from leaving Australia, you have to have a legal basis. Any investigator in the ICAC or the ABF, for that matter, in order to prevent someone leaving Australia, you need a legal basis and that’s normally a warrant or a bail condition. You can’t just prevent people leaving at whim.

And there’s a system in existence in our country called an alert system. It’s been in existence for many, many years under many, many governments and it’s well understood and well known and well practiced and simple. If there’s a legal basis to prevent someone from leaving Australia, somebody goes on alert, and my officers at the airport see the alert, they phone the organisation that’s responsible for the alert and say, “What do you want us to do?” And, generally speaking, if it’s a police force they’ll turn up at the airport and arrest the person.

TOM CONNELL: Right.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: We have to have legal powers to prevent people leaving Australia, and simply being a witness or a suspect isn’t, I’m afraid, sufficient. Moreover, let me say this: the ICAC work in secrecy. Their laws require that they work in secrecy. And nobody in the ABF would have known anyway that this person was a witness and going to appear at one of their hearings.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. So the system as it works, if someone met that bar you spoke about, they’d be in a system and as soon as their passport was swiped or they entered details –

MICHAEL OUTRAM: At check-in.

TOM CONNELL: It pops up ‘cannot leave, call this number’?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Exactly right. And my officers don’t have the powers to stop them leaving. What we would do is ring the police force or ring the ICAC and say, “This person is at the border now. We’ve got them in our customs-controlled area. What do you want us to do?” And if they said prevent them leaving, we’d say, “You probably need to come down here then and arrest the person because we don’t have any legal powers to do that for you.”

TOM CONNELL: Could ICAC have done that if they wished?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Under the legislation they do have warrant provisions. They may have decided that they wish to issue a warrant, but you need, presumably, even with the ICAC legislation, a good reason to do that. And, as I said to you previously, you imagine how many people in our country are witnesses, a party to proceedings, involved in criminal proceedings, potentially suspects, they’ve been referred from one agency to another, referred to a prosecutor. If all those people were prevented from leaving Australia because we have a gut feel they might need to be, there’d be uproar, and rightly so.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. So perhaps it would have been possible, ICAC would have had to test whether this witness met that threshold – is what your understanding is?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: There would be legal tests that the person issuing the warrant, in this case presumably the ICAC Commissioner, would have needed to satisfy themselves that there’s a reasonable basis for preventing them leaving. And, of course, courts do impose bail conditions on some people who are criminally charged.

TOM CONNELL: So this person is a witness. Have you checked since this morning that there was no message from ICAC that somehow didn’t get through to Border Force?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Let me tell you unequivocally – the Australian Border Force was not aware, and nor should we have been because they work in secrecy, that this person was going to be summonsed to appear in front of an ICAC hearing. And they were not on the alert system as requiring the Australian Border Force to take any action whatsoever at the border should they decide to leave the country. So that’s it. They’re the facts.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. So when you say the privacy element, there could have been a message sent without telling you why, simply, “Here’s the alert system, here’s where it’s coming from, do not allow them to leave the country,” but you’re saying emphatically that you double-checked that –

MICHAEL OUTRAM: We had no knowledge whatsoever. Moreover, sometimes the originators ask us to just let them know when somebody is leaving. We didn’t have that kind of request either.

TOM CONNELL: What does that mean? They still leave but then you send a message saying this person’s left?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Exactly.

TOM CONNELL: And that’s it, they get their exit form or something, do they?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: We obviously would contact the alert owner, as we call it, and say, “Just so you know, the person you had on alert has left the country”. And this is a system, Tom, let me say, that’s well understood, well practiced by all of law enforcement across the whole country over many, many years.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. When Monica Hao left the country, it was – there were restricted reasons for doing so. How was she able to leave the country?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, of course, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And we do issue exemptions for people to leave the country. Now let me say this: the team who issues exemptions – and we’ve issued about 250,000 since the start of the pandemic approvals, we’ve had about half a million requests for outbound exemptions. So, they would have to apply and my team would check: is somebody on alert, do they have the appropriate documentation to leave. And in this case, of course, all we do is apply ourselves entirely to the criteria in the exemptions, which are about health. Bear in mind, this is a health measure. The exemptions regime has no relationship to criminal law matters, although they do check for the alert, as I said.

TOM CONNELL: And that includes things such as they’re leaving, they don’t want to come back, so they’re not going to be a burden on the way back in, so they can leave the country. Is that a reason why you’d –

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Absolutely. Obviously there’s a biosecurity determination that puts restrictions on Australians and permanent residents, or it has done through the pandemic –

TOM CONNELL: If someone said, “I’m going for a holiday,” you’d say, “Well, sorry, it’s too hard for you to get back.”

MICHAEL OUTRAM: There’s criteria, clear criteria. Clear criteria that have to be satisfied by the person travelling.

TOM CONNELL: What are you able to tell us about why Monica Hao was able to leave?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I’m not going to go into individual cases. There is a privacy issue here. But all I would say is that the decision-makers who look at the criteria would have firstly checked is a person on alert, have they got the relevant travel documents to allow them to travel, and do they satisfy the criteria, the health criteria, the health-related criteria, to allow them to travel.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. Just generally, because we’re back to not quite normal, but people are able to travel overseas again now, has much changed? Should people be concerned heading to the airport right now? What sort of things are people forgetting that are costing their trips, if you like, or causing delays?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, firstly, we’re trying not to cost people their trips! I’d say please read the information on the website. Everyone knows that the border is reopening, obviously, in line with the national plan. However, let me say, it’s more complicated than it used to be. Obviously you have to, you know, validate your vaccination status and those sorts of things. So please, I would implore people, to check the travel information, the DFAT website, the Home Affairs website, before you travel to make sure that you understand the criteria. You may require a travel exemption if you’re not fully vaccinated.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. And the vaccination status, can that be in paper form?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yes.

TOM CONNELL: Can people print that off?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yes, they can.

TOM CONNELL: There’s no issue with that?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: No issue whatsoever.

TOM CONNELL: Is that no matter where they travel? I know you’re not responsible for around the world, but – because we’ve got some viewers that contact me and say, “We’ve got one smartphone between us as a couple. We’re worried about that.” They can have a printed form and they’ll get in no trouble anywhere?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I wouldn’t say travel anywhere. I wouldn’t say every country in the world. But certainly, travel from Australia and into Australia, and in most similar countries there should be no problem. Provided you’ve got either a digital certificate or you’ve got the QR code on that printed piece of paper that you would get from MyGov.

TOM CONNELL: And that piece of paper has the QR code, because initially people were mocking them up?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: That’s right.

TOM CONNELL: Could people be getting through with a fake one?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: The QR codes that we use are very secure.

TOM CONNELL: So, once they have that bit of paper, you wave something over it, and it has to also go to a page with that person’s name, date of birth, that gets matched up?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Exactly right. Matched up with passport details, dates of birth, et cetera.

TOM CONNELL: All right. So you’re confident there’s no way to get around this?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I’ve been in this game for 40 years Tom. I’d never say we’re a hundred per cent fail safe. There’ll always be people who will defeat any system put in place. But, we’re confident that we’re going to catch the vast majority, and there are good checks and balances, good levels of assurance.

TOM CONNELL: All right. Border Force Commissioner, Michael Outram, thanks for your time today.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Thanks, Tom.

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