The convulsive reaction to Friday’s failed security operation by the Australian Border Force (ABF) in Melbourne was almost as farcical as the event itself.
Operation Fortitude had been announced in a press release to raise the visibility of the newly formed ABF by positioning them:
… at various locations around the CBD speaking with individuals we cross paths with.
The event was to culminate in a “launch” that would show the ABF was capable of working with Victoria Police, Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff’s Office and the Taxi Services Commission. But such a show of fortitude had to be called off by Victoria Police when it drew instant condemnation on social media and from the streets. It made the agencies involved look like keystone cops. The operation was dubbed the “border farce”.
What took everyone by surprise – especially the ABF – was the social media storm it drew.
The announcement was copied to Twitter. Twitter reacted in kind, with a spike across news and activist hashtags. More significant was the appearance of a flashmob to protest the operation. This is possibly the first time a flashmob has been spawned directly by a press release from the state itself. The protest led television news bulletins around the country, with vox pops of people venting their revulsion in the Melbourne CBD.
But the most interesting reaction came in the form of political analysis of the event, associating it with “fascism”, Nazism, Stalinism, totalitarianism, a police state or something “Orwellian”.
The target of these comments is the ABF itself. Since its establishment was first foreshadowed, it has been denounced by the left and right as a dangerous threat to civil liberties. Chris Berg from the IPA, writing on The Drum, and Tony Kevin, former Ambassador to Cambodia and Poland writing in Eureka Street, have both pointed to the civic hazards of such a paramilitary force.
Kevin was one of the first to compare the ABF to Nazi Germany of the 1930s in Eureka Street. He claimed that it is:
… taking Australia into very dangerous waters, by setting up a powerful new paramilitary force with its own ideology, training and rank structure, answerable only to an immigration minister, and apparently with no legal or constitutional checks and balances outside itself.
There is a disturbing precedent here. Hitler, irritated by the constraints imposed under German civil law and by the Werhmacht’s own old-fashioned military codes and conventions of honourable conduct, saw the value of a new security service answerable only to him as leader: the Schutzstaffel (literally Protection Squadron or Defence Corps, more familiarly known as the SS).
Then came the revelation that the Abbott government splurged almost A$10 million on the paramilitary-style black and gold uniforms – intimidating to some and not that good at attracting tourists.
But with the bungled action of last Friday, such connections were flooding the news feeds across social and mainstream media. Within 24 hours, a Nazi satire of Operation Fortitude set in Hitler’s bunker was posted on YouTube. What was clear here was that the Abbott government had crossed a line that was unthinkable. The civic freedoms that our repressive state apparatus is supposed to protect were being violated.
So then came the tasks of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Tony Abbott to deny the operation was auspiced by their offices. Dutton claimed to have received the press release but not actually read it, Abbott denied he knew anything of the operation. But when ABC’s Insiders played the tape of the denial (which can be seen four minutes in), the program noted that Abbott shook his head and appeared to say no without opening his mouth.
Whether the idea was another lamentable brain snap from Abbott or Peta Credlin, or one of the 37 strategic communications staff (paid A$4.7 million per annum) assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), is not known.
But the reaction to it, which is loud and clear, has been to build on an incipient perception of the Abbott government as, if not totalitarian, at least having totalitarian tendencies. Former independent MP Tony Windsor labelled the ABF debacle as a deliberate attempt to create fear and division in the community.
But the fascism tag now being used by critics of the government is out of place and out of time in the way that it references the great Orwellian catastrophes of 20th-century modernity, most commonly that of Nazi Germany. The latter comparison began with an article in the Tasmanian Times last year:
The article, reacting directly to the infamous 2014 budget, overreaches completely. It is true that Abbott has centralised power to the PMO as Kevin Rudd did before him. But the government does not control the media, nor corporate Australia.
Rather, the reverse is true – in the case of either the Coalition or Labor being in government. Both governments have acted as client-state protectorates of these interests. Labor is the party of manufacturing capital; the Coalition is the party of mining capital.
Perhaps Abbott’s slogan obsession is annoying to many, but it has become standard fare for soundbite politics all over the world. Suggesting that Abbott is taking Goebbels’ advice that for propaganda to be successful – “it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” – is a stretch, as is the comparison with 1930s Germany in general.
The conditions for Nazism were based on the impending collapse of capitalism in Germany in the 1930s and cannot be compared to the affluent comfort of 21st-century Australia by any measure. As a leading scholar of the emergence of Nazism, Michael Billig, observes, fascism is but one of the possible resolutions to a crisis of capitalism.
Billig argued that, as a defender of German industrialism, Hitler was looking for a solution to the impending collapse of German capitalism. In extremis, Hitler adopted a form of the social principle as a distorted solution to the deepening crisis of capitalism. Thus, national socialism was created.
There are three distinct differences here. First, Australian capitalism is not currently in any kind of crisis, and is the only nation to have rode out the global financial crisis.
Second, Abbott is no friend of industrial labour. He has dismantled manufacturing in Australia in favour of creating a mining protectorate that employs very few people and is subsidised by the population to the tune of $1700 per person.
Third, whereas Hitler forestalled the collapse of German capitalism by adopting a murderously exclusive form of social principle, the Abbott government has attempted to invent a crisis – in partnership with News Corp – only to abandon any kind of social principle by turning on the population with its first budget.
While the historical conditions for fascism do not exist in Australia, the damage being done to our adolescent social democracy may lead to such conditions. The creation of a police state combined with cycles of emergency related to climate change is all that is needed to provide the state with the legitimacy to remove freedoms from citizens.
At present, neoliberal governments around the world are creating such conditions by focusing on Islamic State. As writers and activists Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali – both speaking that the Melbourne Writers Festival on the weekend – observed, capitalism increasingly needs to legitimate itself by creating and addressing crises.
It is a matter of time before the power of nightmares that terrorism is able to serve will switch to fear of climate impacts and their attendant social problems, such as scarce resources and climate refugees.
Military organisations know this. Their research is not so much about conflict between nations, but how to control populations in times of climate emergencies.
Australia has had a taste of the licence the state has in times of extreme weather emergencies. The forced evacuations of people from their homes in the State Mine fire in NSW in October 2013 was a direct deprivation of people’s liberty to stay and defend their homes. In times of emergency, statutory authorities can behave in paramilitary ways that are usually reserved for the conditions of war.
However, some have gone further and argued that even taking the hardline action needed to mitigate climate change will require the deprivation of civil liberties. Having failed to change the behaviour of the largest emitters – corporations – the state could shift blame for pending climate crisis to individuals, to control and penalise citizens for exceeding personal carbon footprints, for example.
But right now, in relation to the Abbott government, this is certainly one form of control we will never ever see.