Tracing the far-reaching changes in immigration and border protection

Michael Pezzullo is spearheading far-reaching changes in doctrine and organisation of Australian immigration and border security. AAP/Stefan Postles

The Australian government is in the throes of a major recasting of traditional immigration and border security doctrines and institutions. The changes are being led by the incoming secretary of the newly formed mega-department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo. Pezzullo has years of experience managing border protection operations in the former Department of Customs and Border Protection, where he oversaw Border Protection Command and, more recently, Operation Sovereign Borders.

There have been very few major public signposts. Most of these changes are happening quietly. Then-immigration minister Scott Morrison’s announcement in May 2014 of a new “Australian Border Force” – a super-agency combining all the enforcement functions of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration departments, reporting directly to him as minister – was met with mirth.

Morrison’s announcement also attracted serious criticisms that the outcome might become something like the overly powerful US Department of Homeland Security. Critics were concerned about the dangers to Australian values of an unrestrained “border protection above all else” ideology and operational culture.

In October, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Pezzullo’s appointment as secretary of the newly created Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Pezzullo has an impressive 28-year national security career background, initially as a staffer to Gareth Evans and Kim Beazley, and subsequently in Defence. In Customs, he moved into border protection. He was appointed CEO of Customs in 2013, replacing Michael Carmody, whose deputy he had been for some years. Pezzullo has had extensive experience fronting parliamentary committees inquiring into asylum seeker deaths at sea.

Peter Dutton succeeded Morrison as immigration minister in a late-December ministerial reshuffle. Dutton’s first announcement was that Customs officers will be able to carry guns at Australian airports. He made clear – through a spokesman – his full support for the new focus of the integrated department on border protection.

Before this, on December 4, 2014, at an Australian Strategic Policy Institute national security dinner, Pezzullo made a major policy speech setting out his vision for the new department. In our post-Westphalian world of sovereign nation-states accountable only to themselves – but who seek safe rules-based systems for international exchanges – he argued border protection must be the:

… third leg of the trinity of state power which underpins and ensures state sovereignty.

The two other legs would be defence and diplomacy. According to Pezzullo, in our globalised world, borders are no longer territorial or maritime fixed lines. They are “spaces” through which sovereign states control flows of people and goods into and out of their dominion. However:

… criminal non-state groups embed themselves into legitimate networks of commerce and adopt a laundered face, which they present to the global network of trade and travel.

This leads to a logical need for an integrated Immigration and Customs department, with its own uniformed and ranked armed force. The Australian Border Force will start operations on July 1, 2015. The department will be responsible for managing immigration and citizenship, customs and trade rules, all aspects of border controls including law enforcement and quarantine, and Australia’s offshore civil maritime security. Everything must be integrated: there can be no bureaucratic silos with intervening grey areas that enemies can exploit.

This is empire-building on a grand scale. It gets better. Pezzullo defines the border protection task as involving:

  • post-border law-enforcement activities within Australia;
  • actions in the undefined “border space” itself; and
  • co-operative actions with other governments beyond the border space.

In other words, whatever is necessary, wherever necessary. This doctrine has been at work in questionable naval operations involving Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Pezzullo compares the historic importance of the present re-organisation to Arthur Tange’s amalgamation of the defence and armed services departments in the 1970s. He also lauds Australia’s membership of the “Border Five”, pooling Australian, NZ, Canadian, UK and US border protection experience and intelligence. The integrated department will have a new international division, managing these and other international border protection exchanges.

Pezzullo finally reflects on Australia’s successful multicultural immigration experience and future. He hints that Australia is now essentially full. The “original mission of 1945 to build the population base” has been accomplished. Now the focus is on short-term in-and-out flows as the national interest demands.

But do Australians need to worry about any of this? Can we leave all the thinking to this capable and ambitious change-master?

There are large gaps. Pezzullo’s doctrine is harsh towards asylum seekers who arrive independently at Australia’s maritime borders. He sees unauthorised on-water people movements as criminal threats to Australia’s security. He has no words on Australia’s international good citizen role, its responsibility to protect abroad and not contribute to wars that trigger new refugee flows, or our responsibilities to observe international conventions on the law of the sea and maritime search and rescue.

Pezzullo’s concept of borders as flexible spaces risks sanctioning illegal activities abroad by the Navy and other agencies to disrupt and forcibly turn back on-water asylum seekers. Where do family reunions and the Special Humanitarian Program fit into the new hard-nosed immigration framework?

There has been almost no public discussion of these far-reaching changes in doctrine and organisation. However, these developments will significantly change Australia.

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