Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was bound to lead to something like Border Force
The following article is by Richard Flanagan…
It was news to me, as I suspect it was to many Australians on Friday, that there had been created in our country a paramilitary force that seemed not answerable to the legal limits and public expectations of our police and military forces, but only, and directly, to politicians – those same politicians who of late seem to have little respect for the rule of law, the truth, or the necessary independence of the judiciary.
Known as the Australian Border Force, this goon squad – formerly public servants, lately militarised at considerable taxpayer expense, given guns, the power to detain people, vaguely fascistic uniforms and a mandate that seems to not recognise the laws of their own country – were, we now told, mounting a large operation on Melbourne CBD streets, “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.
As is so often the case with the Abbott government, this comic event felt like Vladimir Putin meets Rob Sitch’s Utopia; something sinister undone by a reliable stupidity, perhaps our last national virtue.
The hallmark bullying swagger of this government’s was matched in this instance by a grovelling backdown as the illegality of the proposed actions become clear and public condemnation overwhelming, and the arse-saving swung into full gear.
Peter Dutton, the minister responsible, seemed, understandably, not to want to take any responsibility, until his office finally came out and said they had been sent the press release announcing the operation two days prior to the operation – but no one had read it.
Really? Oh no, it later emerged; they saw it twice, and once at a high, but not ministerial level. Really?
No denial was made though about knowledge of the operation, which is only to be expected given Border Force’s commander reports directly to the minister. Former independent MP Tony Windsor wondered if the minister might not have been gazumped by the prime minister with his craziest captain’s call to date, at which point Captain Ahab himself staggered out onto the sinking bridge of his government to deny all knowledge of the event.
The prime minister blamed it on bad wording and went on to criticise anyone criticising decent public servants doing their job. Which begged other questions: if it was just bad wording why then cancel the otherwise blameless Operation Fortitude?
And what if bad wording spoke the truth of a worse culture in Border Force that now saw intimidation as one of its core duties?
Roman Quaedvlieg, the darkly uniformed head of the goon squad, blamed the now apparently lowly Don Smith, (who, as many pointed out, didn’t sound so lowly as commander of Victorian and Tasmanian operations of the Australian Border Force) drafter of the original media statement announcing the operation.
But what was really going on here?
Quaedvlieg proved more enlightening in a recent interview in Lloyd’s List Australia, where he made it clear that Border Force’s “policy role is definitely led by the Department [of Immigration and Border Protection] …
The most effective model ensures policy and operations work together with regular feedback and evaluation cycles so that our solutions, whether policy or operational, are holistic, practical and achieve agreed outcomes.” (My emphasis.)
“As ABF commissioner,” Dutton declared just two months ago announcing Quaedvlieg’s appointment, “Mr Quaedvlieg will work closely with the secretary of the department; ensuring that the operational and policy aspects of Australia’s border protection are joined at the highest levels.”
Which raises further questions: what was meant to be the “agreed outcome” of this operation? And who agreed to it “at the highest levels”? As a major public operation, what did Dutton know?
And are we to believe that this very public action – the first publicised action by Border Force – was not authorised by Tony Abbott’s cabinet, even if they did not know of its particular details, as part of its ever more desperate attempts to create an election over national security?
Certainly Windsor, a man with no small experience of the ways of national politics, believes so, seeing it as part of the Abbott government’s “agenda to create fear”. It’s “a very sad agenda … to frighten people,” he said.
“I have no doubt that some of these people in Tony Abbott’s government hope that something goes wrong domestically. They can taunt a Muslim into doing something so that they can say that we’re the only one who can protect you.”
In this, the Orwellian Border Force seems well primed to do the dirty work. On Australia Day, Mike Pezzullo, head of the Immigration and Border Protection Department – striking the necessary tone of the commander of the Night’s Watch of the Seven Kingdoms waiting for the white walkers to come over the wall and eat us all – told those public servants who hoped for a position in the soon-to-be-created Border Force that they “must man the ramparts and protect our borders”.
“Operational workers at the agencies hoping to be picked for the nation’s new border protection team,” reported the Canberra Times on 29 January 2015, “must first prove themselves in boot-camp style tests of strength and stamina including push-ups, squats and shuttle-runs.”
It is an iron law of bastardry that to humiliate others you must first be humiliated yourself. In this spirit, Border Force was an equal opportunity enforcer with “female border officials in the over-55 age group expected to perform four push-ups and six repetition squats as well as undergoing heart rate tests after mounting 22 steps in 60 seconds”.
Those who survived such idiocy to make it in the goon squad then had to work to a mission statement that reads like something out of a Philip K Dick sci-fi dystopia—except that Philip K Dick never gave such offence to the English language as this:
We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.
Treating the border as a continuum allows an integrated, layered approach to provide border management in depth – working ahead of and behind the border, as well as at the border, to manage threats and take advantage of opportunities.”
In Border Force world there is no space for reds under our bed, because the refugees are already there, while sleeping on top as well.
“By applying an intelligence-led model and working with our partner agencies across the border continuum,” this Matrix-induced drivel goes on, “we deliver effective border control over who and what has the right to enter or exit, and under what conditions”.
Other than the weird licence such words give to find and punish evil, well, anywhere – hot spots of global people smuggling such as Flinders Lane, my pub, your cafe – the last two clauses, eerily echo John Howard’s infamous 2001 speech in which he declared: “But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Only now, it seems they seem to want to decide a whole lot more about us all.
Some critics had the temerity to suggest that the proposed Melbourne operation might lead to racial profiling.
Of course racial profiling would have had to have occurred, but that was only the beginning of things with a goon squad so politicised and militarised, tasked with answering to an enemy within, of imaginary borders that must be patrolled in the major streets of our cities now.
It is a truth wearily demonstrated by history that acts of tyranny condoned against some will finally become a tyranny visited on all. And in our acceptance of the antidemocratic, frequently illegal, often inhumane and occasionally criminal practices perpetuated against asylum seekers that have seen fellow human beings variously beaten, raped, molested, humiliated and murdered at Australian taxpayers’ expense, we have cleared a road for our own governments to begin treating us similarly.
And were that to happen, and if innocent victims were to use the courts to seek to protect their freedoms against the excesses of Border Force, would the attorney general – the purported custodian of the rule of law – then accuse them of “lawfare”?
If the public broadcaster sought to question such actions that infringe on our liberties would they be attacked as anti-Australian?
Would it be demanded of journalists that instead of digging to uncover crimes they join Team Australia?
And who is Team Australia anyway? Coal companies, thugs, rapists, goons and News Corp propagandists? To which list I almost forgot to add that epitome of Team Australia achievement, Prince Philip.
Much as the prime minister wishes to distance himself from Friday’s fiasco, he cannot. It is he who created the climate of division, promoted the hysteria and cultivated the hate; who sanctioned the offshore crimes and the lies and legal ruses to hide them; who passed the laws that protected the guilty and punished the innocent and sanctioned the creation of a state paramiltary force to enforce it all. As he said on the day of the inauguration of Border Force: “God bless you, God bless your work.”
The deeply antidemocratic excesses of the Abbott government should disturb any thinking Liberal party supporter. The left for 40 years had to live down the follies of Trotskyites and Maoists in the early 1970s. But their antidemocratic acts never reached beyond student and union politics.
The ultra-left never came close to being a federal government.
Paradoxically, those who battled the ultra-left in the 1970s on student campuses and took on much of their authoritarian ardour – the far right – now run Australia.
For some time it has been evident that the Abbott government has been the worst in our history – the most inept and the most incompetent.
But with such actions as Friday’s aborted exercise in police state intimidation, the Abbott government also begins to look in its desperation to cling to power the most dangerous.
Perhaps knowingly, perhaps not, they are summoning into existence forces with powers they do not understand and no democracy should allow. These excesses will be a very long time being forgotten.
The Liberal party can look forward to decades of living such ignominy down. For the highest purpose of a democratic government is to bring a society together and hold it together, not to divide it with fears, with rumours of wars, with acts of belligerence against other and then against its own. It is not to instil fear on our streets with a paramilitary force run by politicians.
The forces that for two centuries held nations together are now in eclipse, and new ideas that make a murderous cult in the Middle East more attractive to young Australians than their own society can only be battled by finding new ways of bringing us together, not further dividing us and weakening our sense of ourselves as a society.
A political party needs reminding that they are only that, that it’s our Australia, not theirs, and certainly not their goons. And it’s time we took it back.