“Border Security” and Fantasies of Control

The program Border Security on Australia’s Channel 7 network begins with the over-egged tones of valour – Every year, thousands of men and women protect Australia’s borders.  Symbols are flashed across the screen – a target sign, suggesting a shooting range.  Those visiting Australia are, after all, fair game for customs officials.  Besides, why on earth were you mindless enough to come this far?

Determined Kevs, Bobs, Barbs, and likeminded people whose knowledge about geography is as accomplished as that of former US President George W. Bush, have the power that petty bureaucracy magnifies.  In their decisions, lives are altered, pathways cancelled or permitted.  Humiliations are filmed with the voyeuristic enthusiasm of a peeping tom. Fascism, like any disease, inhabits the smallest common denominator before it infects the entire being.

When it was introduced in 2004, the program became a hit.  It was so successful the host was eradicated, at least by way of appearance.  Let the subject matter speak.  Condescending characters whose idea of an imaginative breakfast would be to eat the remains of confiscated food from those entering Australia (imagine their office Christmas party); suspicious body-searching guards determined to pin that cocaine trace on the individual in question, and then, the ecstasy of catching an inscrutable drug supplier.  Sentence: six years.

Viewers in various countries (Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK have networks broadcasting the program) salivate at prospects of seeing rotund and steely ‘Aussies’ in action, finding it particularly amusing when officious Sikhs move into the picture, or officials by the name of ‘Essence’ deliberating over an applicant with a false Korean passport.  Other ethnic groups engage in the scuffle, hoping to degrade those who merely look ‘suspicious’ – the camera, after all, is watching. Infuriatingly, the bureaucrat’s precision when it comes to defining what food is fails on the issue of identifying what being ‘suspicious’ is. No matter, the gut instinct is sovereign.

The protective message provided by Border Security is a mixed one.  In fact, one might consider it a fantasy. It punishes and humiliates those who have the paperwork. The big boys never appear because they are operating in other celestial spheres of criminality.  The only individuals who will ever threaten a state will never be mentioned because they do not, in a sense, require a mention.  The undergrowth is always more interesting to an Australian customs official than the forest.

State security is based on the falsehood of exaggerated expectations.  ‘Terrorists’, whoever they might be, are as geographically challenged as the customs officials who diligently protect Australia against the introduction of diseases.  (Australian authorities wish to retain their monopoly on environmental vandalism.)  Besides, if a state can’t survive the arrival of a few grams of heroin, one wonders whether it deserves to survive at all.

There is a surprising lack of criticism about the collaboration between commonwealth government agencies and a commercial network in the making of this venture.  The Department of Immigration and Citizenship effectively has Channel Seven eating out its hands.  The quarantine officers have a green light to be as obnoxious as possible, knowing that suspicious segments will be deleted before the coverage airs.  The editing of darker moments, not to mention blatant acts of moronic behaviour, has happened and will continue to happen.

A good law of bureaucracy is that competency will be eliminated at the earliest possible moment. The food chain only tolerates the worst.  Indian mothers are interrogated because they have not read the customs form on declaring that they have food in their possession.  Chinese visitors from Hong Kong are mocked for having their entire food supply displayed before the camera.  ‘The form says “no food”,’ shouts Tanya, or Karen, or Deb.  Scream, and they just might understand.

What such officials fail to understand is that individuals entering Australia often make a distinction between material that is used to make food and the food that results from it.  Mustard oil is not ‘food’, rather being its indispensable precursor. Ginger by itself is edible, but is far better fried in a stock with rice, unless pickled.

Flights to Australia have stopped their comic, idiotic spray regime that used to greet those arriving into the country.  But the curse of reality television has taken over, a publicity exercise consciously used by customs officials to soften a coarse image.  In 2007, Bob Burton was already noting this.  ‘The Australian Customs Service, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and the beleaguered Department of Immigration and Citizenship have invested considerable effort into ensuring the success of the commercial “reality’ television program, Border Security’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 7, 2007).

The purification rite we now have, and we are warned about this on entering Sydney and Melbourne airports, is that of being filmed by a crew in search of choice subjects who might just well fail the ultimate test of admission.  Sterile airport surroundings become more exciting than a Bollywood film set.  Looking at the insidious aspects of this program, edited film footage is the last thing that should be afforded to such officialdom.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.