The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade boss has criticised an audit after it found the department "did not meet key government objectives" in returning overseas Australians home at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report by the Australian National Audit Office found that while DFAT adapted to assist a large number of Australians stuck overseas, its "management structures and capabilities require strengthening".
"The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in responding to standard and complex, and large-scale crises. While policy advice to the government was largely appropriate, DFAT's reporting to government on its return of Australians could not be verified by the [audit office]," it said.
The department claims it assisted more than 60,000 Australians return home, scheduling almost 230 flights as borders closed and international travellers and expats were stranded overseas.
However, DFAT Secretary Kathryn Campbell is less than pleased with the report and has taken issue with criticism in light of "the difficulties faced by the department during its response".
This comes amongst mounting speculation Ms Campbell could be replaced by a fellow diplomat, Jan Adams.
"There are some aspects of this report that weaken its strategic value to DFAT or which could be read as a mischaracterisation or limited view of the department's response," Ms Campbell said in reply to the audit.
"The department was able to return so many Australians, sustain regular reporting to government and manage concurrent event (such as the unprecedented Afghanistan evacuation), speaks to the effectiveness and adaptability of our systems in a crisis."
In response to her comments, the audit office said it could not verify DFAT's reporting on the number of Australians it had assisted to return home.
While the audit found that DFAT's delivery of flights to return overseas Australians was largely effective, it did not have reliable data on registered Australians overseas, including those identified as vulnerable.
In the early stages of the crisis, the federal government came under intense pressure to organise the return of thousands of Australian tourists stranded aboard infected cruise ships or in countries that virtually locked down their borders. Many people organised their own charters flights to make their way home. It is estimated that as many as a million Australians are abroad at any one time.
We've made it a whole lot easier for you to have your say. Our new comment platform requires only one log-in to access articles and to join the discussion on The Canberra Times website. Find out how to register so you can enjoy civil, friendly and engaging discussions. See our moderation policy here.
Hannah is a general reporter with The Canberra Times. She is currently covering the early breaking news shift and is ready to chase your morning headlines. Hannah started as a journalist with The Southern Highland News and The Goulburn Post before moving to the ACT. Twitter: @neale_hannah
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.