Politics

Junk Explained: What Is The Peter Dutton Au Pair Scandal And Will It Bring Him Down?

Keep an eye on this one.

Peter Dutton has injured his bicep.

The biggest controversies in Australian politics come in twos: When Kevin Rudd rolled Julia Gillard for the Labor leadership, he challenged her twice. Tony Abbott had his leadership tested twice too. Peter Dutton looks like he might try to get two leadership challenges out of the way in under a week.

But another scandal is in the wings that might destabilise probable future PM Dutton before he even begins. And this one, similarly, comes in two: the mystery behind two au pairs who were granted express visas by Dutton back in 2015.

Three years later, there’s still a lot we don’t know. But that could change very, very soon.

Who Were The Au Pairs And What Were They Doing In Australia?

A traveller arrived in Brisbane’s international airport in June 2015, only to find out that she wasn’t entitled to her visa. She told border officials at the airport that she intended to do some au pair work while on her tourist visa — and you’re not allowed to work in Australia if you’re here on a tourist visa.

The usual procedure for someone who has the wrong visa is for them to get on a plane back home. But we know that in this case, the au pair didn’t exit the country. Instead, she made a phone call while she was detained, and a couple of hours later Dutton had personally granted her a new visa using the powers he had as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

A few months later it happened again with another au pair. In this case, we know that Dutton’s department advised him that the au pair had a “high risk” of contravening her visa requirements if she was granted another. He let her into the country regardless.

Critics have had two questions for Dutton since the decision came to light: first, did he stand to gain by granting those visas to the two young tourists? And second, was it consistent for the immigration spokesperson to argue so strongly for stringent border protection, but on the other hand let in select visitors whose case he was more sympathetic to?

When the reports first came out, Dutton returned fire quickly. He denied that he knew the two tourists, or that they ever worked for him or his family.

“I thought if they gave an undertaking they wouldn’t work whilst over here I would grant them a tourist visa,” Dutton said in question time earlier this year. “They didn’t overstay”.

He added: “Our family does not employ an au pair. My wife takes very good care, in my absence I must say, of our three children. We have never employed an au pair.”

He went further, saying that the original reports on the visas were defamatory. Those original reports did not suggest that Dutton had employed the au pairs.

Under the Migration Act, Dutton has the power to intervene in visa decisions if he believes he is acting in the public’s interest.

The Battle For Information

The key element of this scandal is that we don’t yet know any more details about the au pairs. Since the visas were granted by Dutton in 2015, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) has being trying to obtain more information under our freedom of information laws.

Dutton’s department refused to hand over the documents for a year. When the documents were sent to AAP, they were heavily redacted. (Freedom of information law allows government agencies to refuse to release certain information if it is a breach of an individual’s privacy). AAP tried taking Dutton’s department to tribunal, but failed to obtain any more information.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal judge, former Liberal senator Chris Puplick, said that it was not in the public’s interest to reveal the personal information of the travellers, because releasing the information would unfairly make them identifiable.

He also said that it was not in the public’s interest to know who the au pairs’ employers were.

Guardian Australia revealed in earlier this month that Dutton’s department spent more than $10,000 to fight the legal battle.

Other avenues of information gathering have come up dry. In a Senate estimates hearing back in May, the head of the Home Affairs department, Michael Pezzullo, refused to answer multiple questions about the au pair scandal.

The au pair drama returned today with news that former Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg has knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Dutton’s visa intervention.

Quaedvlieg was sacked as commissioner after an investigation determined he had helped his girlfriend get a job in the Australian Border Force.

Quaedvlieg did not deny the report on Twitter, and his intervention could prove crucial.

The au pairs story has been bubbling along quietly for a few months now. Labor senators and MPs have raised some questions, but there hasn’t really been a lot of attention on the issue.

You can bet that will all change if, as expected, Dutton succeeds in his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull this week. If Dutton is Prime Minister by the end of the week, you can bet Labor will be raising their voice over the au pairs.