The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.
— James Madison, Constitutional Convention, June 29, 1787
The greatest dangers of totalitarianism – the variant that produced the European regimes of the 1920s and 1930s – is the sense of a permanent emergency that underpins its existence. The raison d’être of such states lies in the need to maintain the fear, precipitating dangers through the social body, and fostering a permanent sense of vigilance against looming threats. Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has certainly borrowed from that historical legacy, attempting to make the angst and anxiety of border control a fixture of his country’s policy. Emergency, in other words, is being made permanent.
Super security agencies are always to be looked at with suspicion. The creation, after the attacks of September 11 2001, of an Office of Homeland Security in the US was heavily accented in favour of security before liberties. In Australia, the newly elected Abbott government would rush to transform the immigration department into one of immigration and border security. As is ever the case, Canberra is permanently jealous of its American cousins, and attempts, at every given moment, to emulate Washington’s overbearing example. The better examples of constitutional valour are overlooked in favour of the heavy-handed solutions.
Enter, then, designs for the new Australian Border Force (ABF), a consolidated body involving Customs and Immigration operations led by a commissioner with a direct line to the minister. The plans were sketched by the immigration minister before the Lowy Institute on Friday. Maritime officers, investigators and those connected with the tracking down of illegal goods will fall within its remit. This will come with a National Border Targeting Centre, coming into operation from July. A training college, with its own esprit de corps, is being created. Such recruits must, after all, be unflinching in executing their orders.
The ABF will be elevated to the highest security level, given the same standing as the Australian Federal Police Commission, Chief of Defence Force and Director General of the domestic spy agency, ASIO. Morrison is keen to emphasise the monetary imperative here. A new, conflated agency will result in “hundreds of millions in savings”. Morrison slides into management speak with ease – the ABF will be “intelligence-led, mobile” (comforting to know that intelligence, in this case, is a leader, and mobile), and “technologically enabled”.
Cash is not the primary issue, but it is a close second to the ideology of the change. Creating such an agency will provide “another dividend – a reform dividend – reforming not just how we continue to protect against the threat of people-smuggling in the future, after the Operation Sovereign Borders is stood down – so the boats don’t come back – but to sustainably address our many border’s threats and challenges.”
Border security is Morrison’s mania. The mantra has been “stopping the boats”, but he is keen to remind those who care to listen to him that Australia is an island besieged by all manner of unsavoury and criminal elements. “Border protection does not start and stop with stopping boats. Organised criminals will peddle anything from which they can profit – people, drugs, guns or other illicit substances.”
The response in Australia has been mute. Critical voices have been hounded into submission, though a few isolated cases of protest can be found. Former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland, Tony Kevin, is alarmed by Morrison’s framework of permanent emergency. In creating this agency, he is “taking Australia into very dangerous waters, by setting up a powerful paramilitary force with its own ideology, training and rank structure, answering only to the immigration minister, and apparently with no legal or constitutional checks and balances inside itself” (Eureka Street, May 12).
Kevin’s point is important. The Australian Defence Forces are bound by civil and military constraints outlined by international and domestic law. Ditto the public service in the administrative and civil sense. Kevin senses a paramilitary design to flout authority, to operate, on the premise of effect rather than accountability. After all, “The SS had its own training colleges, uniforms, ranks and career structure.” The propagandists are going to have a field day.
No department that exists in the shadows can hope to be transparent, credible or accountable. It is already clear that Operation Sovereign Borders is designed as one grand act of executive asphyxiation, marginalising the ADF on the one hand even as it politicises it. Let the issue die in secret suffocation and hope it goes away.
Morrison’s initial bet was to have press conferences without actually having them, discussing the fantasy of a continent beset by wicked arrivals keen on disrupting Australia’s buccaneering lifestyle. His hope now is to merge various functions of government in one body that will oversee the insecurities that have made Australia a gargantuan anxiety troll fighting imaginary enemies. Such agencies have a habit of festering and corrupting; more to the point, they have a habit of moving outside the ambit of parliamentary control.