James Paterson accuses Labor, public servants of ‘covering up’ NZYQ information

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Senior public servants have been accused of attempting to “cover up and protect the government’s interests” in a fiery late night senate hearing.

Coalition home affairs spokesman James Paterson grilled Home Affairs officials on Wednesday night on details surrounding the NZYQ cohort, who were released into the community after last year’s landmark High Court decision that ongoing detention without deportation prospects was illegal.

Officials revealed 73 of the 152 people in the cohort were not currently required to wear electronic monitoring devices, but when asked, could not confirm whether any of the seven convicted murderers, 37 convicted sex offenders or 72 convicted violent offenders were among that group.

Senator Paterson had written to the department and the Australian Border Force ahead of the hearing, alerting them to the data he was after.

When they could not provide the information, Senator Paterson pointed to recent media coverage suggesting government interference, and said it appeared as though officials were “trying to obfuscate this committee, and not provide information which is in the public interest”.

“Anyone watching this hearing will see an apparent attempt to cover up and protect the government’s interest,” he said.

Murray Watt, the minister representing the Home Affairs Minister, said the suggestion was “outrageous”, while committee’s chair Nita Green said senator Paterson’s language was “unparliamentary” and recommended that he withdraw his comments, which he declined to do.

“That’s what this looks like,” Senator Paterson said, doubling down.

“That’s exactly what it looks like when advance warning has been given about questions, when they’ve been asked on notice before … and the questions still can’t be answered. These are legitimate questions in the public interest.

Senator Watt said it reflected “very poorly” on Senator Paterson that he was not prepared to withdraw his statement.

ABF Commissioner Michael Outram reiterated comments he’d made to Senator Paterson during the last round of hearings about “difficulties” in providing information broken down by state, previous offences or visa conditions.

“It gets to a point where we identify people, and we did talk about this and I explained that I was uncomfortable answering those questions, and the situation hasn’t changed,” he said.

“I do have genuine concerns about providing information for very small numbers of people which may lead to them being identified.”

The hearing topped off a bruising day for Home Affairs, amid allegations minister Clare O’Neil had “verbally abused” her department secretary after, and the Coalition delaying the passage of immigration legislation.

Stephanie Foster on Wednesday night said the stories about the state of her relationship with Ms O’Neil were “absolutely baseless”.

Earlier, Nine Newspapers reported Ms Foster had caught Ms O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles off guard during the last block of senate hearings, when the secretary tabled a 17 page document detailing who the 149 immigration detainees released into the community after last year’s NZYQ decision were, in response to a question from senator Paterson.

The document revealed among the cohort were seven murderers or attempted murderers were among the cohort, and 37 had been convicted of sexual offences.

Nine Newspapers reported the tabling had “derailed” Labor’s strategy of dealing with the NZYQ fallout, and had defied the ministers’ expectations Ms Foster would provide verbal answers.

Sky News then reported Ms Foster had been “left in tears” during a subsequent meeting with Ms O’Neil, attributing to several sources that the minister had “torn strips” off the secretary who was spotted leaving upset.

Ms Foster said the story was wrong and that she could “never imagine” Ms O’Neil to “conduct herself in that way”.

Under repeated questions as to whether she had received any “negative responses” to her tabling the information, Ms Foster said her conversations with the ministers had always been “forward looking and constructive”.

“Neither minister O’Neil nor minister Giles or any of their staff have ever attempted to interfere with the way I handle estimates,” she said.

Ms O’Neil had earlier fielded several questions from the Opposition on the matter on Wednesday.