On 15 March 2018, the head of the Australian Border Force, Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg was sacked. It was a curious case. Quaedvlieg had allegedly changed internal recruitment policy to help his girlfriend get a casual, low level administrative job at Sydney Airport and failed to disclose the relationship. Yet for such a high profile case, there was very little media attention during the nine month investigation. It was prolonged and shrouded in silence. The Opposition were strangely quiet over the whole affair. Quaedvlieg fiercely denied wrongdoing and still maintains his innocence.
Until his unprecedented sacking, Quaedvlieg was at the prime of his career. With a lengthy background in law enforcement and management, he was touted as one of two possible options to head up the new mega-Department of Home Affairs expected to be established in 2017. The timing of Quaedvlieg’s mysterious suspension couldn’t have been worse. In Quaedvlieg’s absence, Mike Pezzullo became one of the most powerful Department heads in the Commonwealth Government.
There was no indication Quaedvlieg wasn’t fully respected by his peers and the Minister when he suddenly disappeared from his official role in mid-2017. There was no indication that anything was awry. However his recent, very public spat with his former boss, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, has brought to the forefront a very serious question. Just why was Quaedvlieg sacked?
There seems a fairly reasonable case that Quaedvlieg was already a marked man from at least early 2017. Instigations for investigations of the nature for which Quaedvlieg was eventually sacked do not occur in a vacuum. And it seems distinctly unbelievable that a man in Quaedvlieg’s position, with his lengthy experience in law enforcement and national security, would have such a continued error of judgement, as alleged by Dutton and his companions, in committing the alleged misdemeanors which ultimately led to his sacking.
It is also unprecedented for a senior government official to be sacked over something as obscure as allegedly doctoring recruitment processes to benefit a person applying for a low-level administrative position. It’s equally absurd to suggest that Quaedvlieg would not have a sound understanding of the requirements to disclose a personal relationship at the appropriate time.
So what really happened? Was it the mismanagement of what should have been a minor internal investigation which made Quaedvlieg’s position untenable? The process was extraordinarily long and Quaedvlieg has publicly stated he was denied natural justice. Was it a personal vendetta instigated somewhere within the secretive depths of the bureaucracy which took an ugly turn and from which there was no coming back? Was the matter with the girlfriend a concocted and convenient excuse to take Quaedvlieg out? Just why did the Government go for Quaedvlieg?
As Border Force Commissioner, Quaedvlieg was a trusted, powerful and influential public servant. He had knowledge of the innermost workings of his Department, a direct line to the Minister, and a wealth of information on the most sensitive details of secretive and closely guarded operations. He was the public face of Border Force, with no smear on his record, other than the public wrathe personally directed at him over the abhorrent indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island; an accountability which actually sits directly and undisputedly with Mike Pezzullo, Secretary for the Department of Home Affairs.
Something clearly went wrong for Quaedvlieg. The investigation was initially instigated by Pezzullo, Quaedvlieg’s then-contemporary as Secretary of the former Department of Immigration and Border Protection. He referred allegations to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity in what Quaedvlieg expected would be a swift exoneration. Instead the matter dragged on. The internal inquiry was completed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s secretary, Martin Parkinson.
And while at the time, Home Affairs Minister Dutton went to great lengths to distance himself from Quaedvlieg’s sacking, recently he has made extraordinary attempts to discredit and defame him, while hiding behind parliamentary privilege. The current Prime Minister and former Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has also supported Dutton, giving credence to Dutton’s scurrilous claims that Quaedvlieg’s consenting adult relationship with a younger woman was illegal.
The sacking, and unprecedented personal vilification of a man formerly trusted to lead the Australian Border Force is astonishing. It coincides with Quaedvlieg’s recent openness to engage publicly on matters of interest to the Australian public.
Shortly after his sacking, Quaedvlieg questioned the Government’s proposal to give police greater powers to demand identity documents in airports. In August 2018 he intervened to assist advocates obtain medical treatment for a refugee. In September he made public his own musings from a 2015 visit to Nauru. His regular tweets give subtle clues as to what he may know. He has used the protection of a parliamentary inquiry to reveal details of Dutton’s potential abuse of power in the au pair affair and jobs for mates scandal, which Quaedvlieg reveals he has detailed knowledge of the recruitment events for in his letter to the Chair, Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.
As a private citizen, it is difficult for Quaedvlieg to defend himself. Unlike Dutton, he does not have the protection of parliamentary privilege other than through formal government inquiry channels. It is evident that at least one man, Quaedvlieg’s former boss, will stop at nothing in his attempts to discredit him. And in what can only be described as a vindictive and malicious prosecution, Quaedvlieg’s girlfriend has been criminally charged for essentially not telling investigators what they wanted to hear.
What happened behind closed doors that led to the squirreling out of Quaedvlieg’s girlfriend’s alleged unmerited job placement? Who was responsible for his drawn out, secretive and extraordinary downfall? Why is Quaedvlieg still being publicly attacked by the government?
In the current political climate, Dutton and Morrison are evidently concerned about the truth being exposed. They must be thankful they recently passed laws making it illegal to “harm Australia’s reputation”. They must be glad a precedent has been set with the vexatious prosecution of Bernard Collaery and Witness K, who are now defending charges after exposing the Australian Government’s illegal spying in East Timor. Senior government officials and Ministers must be grateful that there is bipartisan support for the laws which threaten 2 years in jail for anyone speaking out on matters relevant to the Border Force. They must fear what Quaedvlieg knows.
Perhaps in time, a government committed to transparency and accountability will establish a full inquiry into the international embarrassment which is Australia’s offshore detention regime, the establishment of the Border Force and super-Department of Home Affairs, and the mysterious rise and fall of Quaedvlieg.