SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Saturday distanced himself from a police operation in Melbourne which was cancelled amid public outrage about possible spot checks on people's visas, saying his office had no prior knowledge of it.
The furore erupted on Friday when the Australian Border Force (ABF) issued a news release saying its officers would join police and transport officials in Melbourne city this weekend to speak "with any individual we cross paths with" to identify visa fraudsters.
Abbott said, however, the government would never conduct random spot checks on people's visas on the streets as he dismissed the press release as "clumsy" and "over the top".
"We would never stop people randomly in the street demanding their visa details. We don't do that sort of thing in Australia and it will never happen under this government," he told reporters in Sydney.
"Unfortunately the press release was very, very badly worded but no one has been, no one ever will be, randomly stopped in the street for some kind of visa check."
The original media release sparked anger, with protesters gathering outside Melbourne's Flinders Street Station on Friday amid fears that the operation would target those of foreign appearance.
"You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it's only a matter of time before you're caught out," ABF regional commander Don Smith said in the statement.
Abbott said his office had been unaware of the nature of the operation before it was announced, saying such releases went out all the time from government agencies but were at arm's length from ministers and the executive government.
He stressed that "nothing happened here except the issue of a poorly worded press release".
"Victorian Police, routinely, if they suspect there could be a visa issue with someone who they are questioning, they refer it on to Australian Border Force in the usual way and that's all that was ever intended yesterday," Abbott said.
The newly-formed Australian Border Force, which is responsible for immigration enforcement, issued a clarifying statement saying it would not be "stopping people at random" to "check people's papers".
"There was never any intent for the Australian Border Force to proactively go out and seek immigration breaches out in Melbourne city," ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said.
But Quaedvlieg agreed that the press release had sounded menacing, adding it had been cleared at a low level in the organisation.
"It was, in my description, clumsily worded. It's portrayed a role which was not the agreed role between ourselves and Victorian police," he said.
The Victorian Police called off the operation, which had been intended to target anti-social behaviour and ensure commuters travelled home safely, citing a "high level of community interest".