On the 12th of May, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced a major shake-up in Australian border security administration. Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is effectively to become merged into a powerful new permanent ‘super-agency’.
In the course of the coming year, present OSB functions will have been absorbed into an even more powerful and permanent Australian Border Force. This force will by July 2015 have assumed all the functions and powers of the Australian Immigration and Border Protection Department, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the Australian Quarantine Service, and Operation Sovereign Borders.
It will apparently sit outside both the public service and ADF chains of commands and laws and protocols of conduct. It will report to a ‘commissioner’ who will report to the Minister for Immigration. It will have its own ranks, promotion and command structure, and its own training college. It will operate according to a ‘border protection above all else’ ideology that was spelt out frankly by Morrison in The Australian.
This new intelligence-based super-agency ‘will have responsibility for staff at air and sea borders as well as those involved in investigations, compliance and enforcement’. It will manage immigration detention and removals. It will include airport and maritime officers, investigators and those responsible for tracking down illegal goods. A college ‘will also be established to deliver the professional, technical and operational training that border force officers will need in the border environment of the future’.
Some may consider this to be a step in the right direction both in terms of strong leadership in deterring asylum seekers as well as greater efficiency and simplification of the bureaucracy of multiple government agencies in dealing with border protection. But I wonder if this view is blind to the dangers inherent in 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.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is bound by civil and military law, the Geneva Conventions, international maritime law, and its own protocols of honourable conduct. The public service is bound by civil and administrative law, by what is left of the Westminster conventions, by parliamentary and external audit processes. What will constrain this new Australian Border Force? We know from OSB’s conduct that it is prepared to break Australian and international laws, ride roughshod over diplomatic relationships, shrug off major human rights violations, and indemnify its staff against legal sanctions.
What I find most disturbing is that this mirrors a pattern and precedent in recent history. There have been a number of governments in the last century, like pre-world war II Germany or the post-war Latin-American goverments, where the leadership, frustrated by the constraints imposed under civil law and by the regular army’s own military codes and conventions of conduct, saw the value of a new security service answerable only to the leadership.
Operation Sovereign Borders already was a step in undermining our democratic process by removing government actions from public scrutiny. The price of liberty is constant vigilance, and there is a lot to be vigilant about in this new agency. At the very least, the lack of checks and balances needs to be scrutinised.
What is left of the ADF’s functions and raison d’etre? Effectively, by giving border security to this new super-agency, what is left of the ADF’s core functions?
There is an irrational fear in the psyche of Australian society that we are in constant danger of invasion. The grounding for this has been well laid over many years. Inflammatory ministerial rhetoric, influential entertainment television programs like Border Security: The Front Line, children’s literature like Tomorrow When the War Began, have subtly conditioned some Australians to think of ourselves as a nation under all kinds of dark threats from beyond our borders. We have steadily become a more isolationist country in ethos, with border security paranoia becoming a national mental disease.
(Much of this article was written with reference to the article written by Tony Kevin in ‘Eureka Street.’ Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.)