Extreme Politics: Between The Gulag and The Military

It had to come.  Soon after the announcement by the governing Australian Labor Party that Manus Island would re-open as part of a what is tantamount to a gulag solution, the opposition leader Tony Abbott has punched the air with his own option. It as unimaginative as it is brash, a military freak show that will convert boat arrivals into an invasion problem.  There was none to begin with, but Abbott and his counterparts are on the hunt for demons to kill.

For Tony Abbott, there is everything in a name. Operation Sovereign Borders suggests that harsh measures are required against refugees.  (The language of queue jumpers is absent, but we know what he is thinking.)  He commences with the alarmism that has dominated the non-debate about refugees in Australia.  “There is a national emergency on our borders.”

Numbers are cited to ratchet up the alarm. “Over 48,000 people have arrived on almost 800 illegal boats.”  Children are at risk on those boats.  “More than 1,000 people have perished at sea.”  (Not that, mind you, the humanitarian sense ever comes up in these arguments.)

Indeed, the invasion rhetoric is something that both parties have embraced in varying degrees. What Abbott is doing is taking it one reprehensible step further. He is less keen on regional agreements.  No, Mr Rudd can keep his half-baked gulag solution.  What Abbott will do is “establish a military-led response to combat people smuggling and to protect borders”.

The military styled operation will be led by “a senior military commander of 3 star ranking.”  They need stars these days to cope with asylum seekers.  The operation will involve direction by a Joint Agency Taskforce that is supposedly designed to “streamline” and coordinate efforts against this fictitious emergency.

The bombastically named policy will also supplement the Coalition’s mania of “turning back the boats”, termed Operation Relex II and the re-introduction of temporary protection visas.

This is not process, it is hysteria. It is not assessment, it is condemnation. There was never a need to convert what is in the main a humanitarian problem into a matter of gravest security.  This was done all too clearly in August 2001 when the Norwegian MV Tampa became the focal point of an SAS boarding.   In what must rank as one of the worst misuses of the Australian military in history, humanitarian cargo became militarised assets.  Elite soldiers became de facto police officers.

Shockingly, this measure further demonstrates how the public service has become irremediably politicised in an effort at faux civilian policing. The Australian Defence Association has claimed that, “As a constitutional and legal principle the Australian Defence Force should not be used for civil law enforcement unless it is a real emergency and the relevant civil agencies do not have the specialist resources to cope.”

Furthermore, the ADA noted with some dismay that the Abbott model would involve “a senior ADF officer answering directly as commander, for a non-military function, to the minister for immigration and citizenship”.

Of course, this entire notion vanished under the Howard government, when the defence forces became auxiliaries in a political campaign against asylum seekers.  The Labor governments were more modest about this violation.  An Abbott government is unlikely to show any such qualms.

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.