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Operation Sovereign Borders

Operation Sovereign Borders specialist teams (Transit Security Elements: TSEs) in training. ADF/Andrew Dakin

There’s a time-tested ‘law’ in the history of modern self-government: when a bounded nation-state democracy prosecutes war abroad, the spirit and institutions of its democracy are usually vandalised at home.

The Life and Death of Democracy analyses many historical instances of a rule that most definitely applies to the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Let us not mince words. In waters well beyond Australia’s north-west shores, it is now prosecuting a form of war against people who have already suffered rape, torture, war, poverty and humiliation.

At taxpayers' expense, with guns at the ready, the war involves physically pushing and shoving these unfortunate people back towards the places where they suffered injustice in the first place. Those who are captured are locked up in ‘detention centres’. There they become victims of military speak: renamed ‘transferees’ and ‘customers’ of law-breaking ‘people smugglers’.

At home, the government directing the military operation behaves no better. It grows more arrogant by the day. As if dressed in battle uniform, the macho men of arbitrary power handle the truth carelessly. They peddle the misleading impression that our Southeast Asia neighbours are happily content with the whole risky military operation.

The government talks tough: ‘budging’, ‘rolling over’ and suffering ‘intimidation’ and ‘defeat’ are not its thing. It prefers the cavalier abstractions of ‘national interest tests’ directed at ‘illegals’ said (somehow) to threaten domestic order and public safety.

With the recent announcement that the government will establish ‘a single frontline operational border agency’ known as the Australian Border Force, matters of immigration and customs are about to be put on a war footing. That is why government ministers refuse to answer questions at press conferences; and why, by default, they reveal their hidden contempt for citizens presumed to be drongos (idiots) who’ve long ago given up on politics, hence willing to let their rulers get on with the business of keeping the country safe from unwanted invaders.

Asylum seekers processed by HMAS Wollongong. ADF/Sgt Rob Nyffenegger

In a fighting mood, the government meanwhile seems quite happy to annoy the UNHCR, even to violate Australia’s legal obligations to the Refugee Convention. In defiance of a rebuff in the Senate, it now seems to be preparing to deploy its troops against the High Court. And why not? Soon the generalissimos will be trying to win a re-election campaign by claiming that their Operation Sovereign Borders campaign has been an unqualified success.

If democracy is about humility, public openness, equality and the non-violent refusal of arbitrary power, then all these bellicose efforts to ‘stop the boats’ are anti-democratic, in every way. I tried to explain this point in an earlier posting on the concentration camps of Manus Island and Nauru.

The piece examined the political implications of the decision by the Abbott government to award Transfield Services a $1.22 billion contract to manage these camps. It targeted Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, and the newDemocracy Foundation he runs, showing how both are implicated in the whole dirty business of Operation Sovereign Borders.

It asked Mr Belgiorno-Nettis several political questions, to do with double standards: for instance, why he hasn’t divested his interests in Transfield Services, and whether he’d be willing to fund a deliberative democracy session in the camps, to give its inmates a public voice?

What has been the result? Silence. Sullied silence, even from the scholars involved in its work. The Foundation continues to snub calls for a public reply to the questions, which to many thousands of readers seemed straightforwardly reasonable.

Behind the scenes, following the publication and re-publication of the piece on many web platforms, the newDemocracy Foundation played rough. In effect, it alleged the piece was written out of sour grapes: never having received a cent from their coffers, ran the story, I plotted revenge. Then they alleged that the whole issue was a case of vox pop spin, crude media hype designed to raise a rabble against their good reputation as champions of reasoned public deliberation.

These cooked-up ad hominem allegations are diversionary. Seen from a public relations point of view, the allegations are just plain daft, in essence because by its silence the newDemocracy Foundation runs a high risk of reputational damage. Who will take seriously a privately-funded foundation that refuses to explain its view of a company that has taken on the dirty business of running offshore concentration camps?

Sadly, those who run the foundation seem unconcerned with the dangerously anti-democratic effects of Operation Sovereign Borders. For an organisation whose charter speaks of the need to find ‘a better way to do democracy’ it’s all rather surprising, and more than a bit politically curious.