Did the Australian Border Force seriously intend to address reporters in between Flinders Street’s bagpipe players and spotty-faced emo kids? Apparently so – but with social media in meltdown at the prospect of Peter Dutton’s black-garbed men accosting strangers and demanding their papers, the under-the-clocks press conference quickly descended into predictable chaos.
By 2pm, the steps were already occupied by chanting protesters, whose numbers steadily grew. A harried-looking press officer promised journalists the presser would still take place – but even she didn’t sound like she believed it.
Meanwhile, the department issued a hurried clarification.
“The ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets,” it said, “and does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.”
All well and good – except that border force’s Victorian commander, Don Smith, had earlier promised that the force would be “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”. Unless the commander intended to cross paths with people he already knew, the two statements were flatly contradictory.
If the ABF didn’t stop people at random, why did Smith say that was what he planned to do? And if the Border Force wasn’t checking papers, why the warnings about visa conditions?
As Operation Fortitude fell apart, a remarkable media statement by Victorian police minister Wade Noonan made clearer what had happened.
“We fully support the decision by Victoria Police to cancel the operation,” he said, “after the unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation by the Australian Border Force today.”
In other words, Smith and the ABF seemed to have involved themselves in a standard police operation and thereby ruined it – all, one presumes, in search of more publicity. The incompetence would be comical if the implications weren’t so serious.
Remember, the Abbott government recently allotted the Border Force more than $6m to kit themselves out like Emperor Palpatine’s bodyguards. Meanwhile, as Fairfax’s Nicole Hasham pointed out, detainees in Nauru don’t even have sufficient clothes to cover themselves, with parents resorting to cutting holes to make their kids’ shoes fit.
The ABF is, in other words, an outfit exerting extraordinary power over some of the most vulnerable people imaginable and usually it operates in complete secrecy. If this is how it behaves in the middle of one of Australia’s biggest cities, how does it conduct itself when shrouded behind the secrecy of “on water operations”?
“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.”
That sounds like something one stoner might mutter to the other (The borders are in our heads, man!) while blazing up a joint. But it’s actually part of the Australian Border Force’s mission statement – and you can see how its vagueness could easily offers scope for the kind of mission creep that seems to have led Smith to crash Victoria Police’s party.
Certainly, the commander’s press release, with its promise of addressing any individuals they encounter, seems to have been calculated to inject a note of implicit chauvinism into run-of-the-mill policing. For how could the involvement of the Australian Border Force in an operation targeting anti-social behavior not encourage a distinction between those who grew here and those who flew here?
For a long time, there have been warnings that the cruelty of Australia’s immigration would have a carcinogenic effect on the body politic, as the brutality of the camps spread – and it’s becoming increasingly obvious what that look