The border is everywhere: the policy overreach behind Operation Fortitude

The Australian Border Force’s creation was no simple re-shuffling of departmental units. AAP/Lukas Coch

The cancellation of Operation Fortitude, a joint law enforcement agency operation involving the Australian Border Force (ABF) slated to be held in Melbourne over the weekend, was put down to a “clumsily worded” press release. But was it an inevitable outcome of the decision to fold immigration and customs into the ABF?

The ABF’s creation was no simple re-shuffling of departmental units of the kind that Canberra is used to. It was established with a new statute, a new uniform and a new oath binding its workers to the defence of the border as a “strategic national asset”.

The ABF also has a smart new website whose domain name registers the displacement of warm and fuzzy immigration management by the tough façade of border control. The website hosts an attractive presentation of the history of its Customs predecessor and a more muted acknowledgement of the former Immigration Department.

Old thinking about national borders is jettisoned in the ABF vision. In a statement of “Who We Are”, the ABF doesn’t shrink from big conceptual thinking:

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating national states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.

This approach is more than rhetorical, as we now know from the (failed) planned operation in Melbourne:

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.

Back to the future

In truth, immigration has always been about national security. But the ABF represents a significant departure from earlier ways of managing the border.

The ABF’s creation is actually a return to the days before 1946 when the management of the borders – of people as well as goods – was the business of the customs service, in its various guises, along with state police when needed. It was Victorian customs officers who quarantined the merchant ship the Afghan in April 1888 to prevent the unloading of its cargo of Chinese passengers.

It was the Commonwealth customs service that administered the dictation test in defence of White Australia. It was the state police forces that kept an eye on migrants and visa holders after they entered the country.

The post-war creation of the Immigration Department demanded a new approach – one that could deal with the mass migration program that changed the face of Australia and eroded the old certainties about a British society in the South Pacific. The new departmental website quotes Arthur Calwell, the first immigration minister, in 1945:

If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War, it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our dependants, unless we greatly increase our numbers.

A symptom of the new approach – one that would subordinate worries about national security to the higher demands of nation-building – was evident in post-war debates about the challenge of absorbing the waves of migrants.

Worried about the threat of crime and subversion among the newcomers, Australian police commissioners in 1946 proposed universal fingerprinting of migrants. Calwell dismissed the idea out of hand, instead removing the control of immigrants from the state police to the Immigration Department. He told parliament that the government believed:

Aliens should not be supervised by police stations because they had come from policed states.

Stop and search

In spite of Calwell’s declaration, the powers of the post-war Immigration Department were very considerable. They relied on liaison with state police to carry out their work.

The department did not shrink from an expectation that it keep track of the new Australians. A very large-scale surveillance program tracked those migrants who ran into trouble with the law, harvesting information from the state police forces – only to find that migrants were generally more law-abiding than locals. The program enabled the department to proceed against serious law-breakers, deporting criminals and others in breach of their registration conditions.

The roots of concern over the use of immigration law to surveil the populace may be found in the long-standing powers of police and immigration officials to make non-citizens accountable for their presence.

These powers have enabled the use of “stop and search” practices by police acting on “reasonable suspicion” to demand unfamiliar persons account for themselves. Since 2006 they have been able to do so with the immediate assistance of an Immigration Department database.

The suspicion aroused by the ABF press release last week is one grounded in the reality of existing police practices. But, these are now amplified and made more visible by their threatened adoption by this new agency.

The vigilant state

A droll page on the Customs history website hosted by the ABF recounts the arrival in 1938 of a new vessel, HMAS Vigilant. Contention between Comptroller-General Abbott and the director of naval ordnance over the vessel’s operational requirements resulted in a decision that its three-pounder gun be loaded with:

… blank ammunition to enable it to intimidate perceived threats without actually firing upon them.

Operation Fortitude was left without even blank ammunition to deploy as the collaboration of multiple agencies foundered in the wake of a “badly worded” press release last Friday. The evidence, however, suggests that the remedy requires more than a new operational spin.

The Australian Border Force is now lumbered with a name whose association with “farce” will spring too readily to mind. A good start in addressing its credibility deficit will be more open discussion of the scope and functions of an agency which seems to think that the border is everywhere.