There was something fundamentally weird about what happened last Friday.
On 1 July, the Australian Border Force was brought into existence within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It assumed the roles previously undertaken by Customs officers and by Immigration officers: policing entry and exit of goods and people, and policing immigration compliance. Since then, it has been mostly invisible. Last week, the ABF announced a positive result from a multi-agency operation — Operation Cringle — to target drug smuggling. Another collaboration resulted in arrests of people involved with smuggling performance enhancing drugs.
On Friday, however, the ABF released a media statement declaring that it was joining forces with a few agencies and was going to ‘to target crime in and around the Melbourne CBD to make the city a safer place for everyone’.
And then Twitter went absolutely ballistic.
Liberal Party hack, Chris Kenny, wrote that:
When the Australian Border Force issued a silly press release saying it would be “speaking with any individual we cross paths with’’ during a routine operation with Victoria police, the kids on Twitter quickly turned this into “random visa checks” and “racial profiling” and asking people “for their papers”. When they mustered a rent-a-crowd protest the authorities compounded the error by caving in to the nonsense and cancelling their law enforcement plans. Some “police state” this — thwarted by hashtags and a couple of hundred protesters.
Chris Kenny hates social media and all who use it. He’s quit it about seven times but keeps returning just to be sure that he really hates it. It would not be unreasonable to dismiss his argument as the demented braying of a Boomer troll.
But he’s not entirely wrong. Amid the extremely funny memes about the Australian Border Force and the understandable concern about racial profiling from the State, it was all but impossible to to work out precisely what was going on. At one point, I thought this was the Australian Border Force joining up with taxi companies to do random checks of people coming in and out of Melbourne’s CBD. Why? Because one Twitter person had misread another Twitter person’s jumbled understanding, and passed it on as rephrased news.
This is the new world. For fairly sensible reasons, people don’t always respond to the source material but, instead, to other people’s accounts of it. Further, there is a lack of historical context with Twitter. An eternal present means that facts need to stand on their own, making it seem like the Australian Border Force was doing something entirely novel and unprecedented, rather than continuing a function it inherited from the Department of Immigration.
And that’s where we get to the Australian Border Force’s problems that were intuited by the Twitter throng.
Back in 2010, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship teamed up with local authorities as part of a policing effort into taxi drivers. Lots of checks were done on taxi drivers, including vehicle inspections. If anything, these operations show how fragmented our policing efforts are: we have officers that specialise in only one kind of compliance activity.
There are two key differences with the 2010 operation. The first was the role of Immigration: it had a support capacity rather than a starring role. The second is that the perception of Immigration has changed significantly in the past five years.
We barely go a week without Australia’s immigration policies being in the news, and the stories are overwhelmingly negative. The latest story — that Wilson security staff handcuffed a kid ‘as a joke’ — is so thoroughly beyond the pale that it amazes me that there aren’t more protests to shut down all of our extra-territorial IDFs until public confidence can be restored. It came on the back of — obviously false — claims that Wilson security staff were torturing asylum seekers by waterboarding them.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not the claims are true. The fact that the public can find these claims plausible shows that there is a serious problem with our immigration policies. We easily believe the worst.
When Twitter goes into a meltdown over a story, even reasonable people (like me — one of the most authoritarian people I know) find it difficult to intuit that the story is false, incomplete, or out of context. It was very, very easy to believe that the Australian Border Force would do something as stupid as checking the visas of people they encounter in the street.
Chris Kenny is correct. An incomplete story was taken massively out of context, arising from the Australian Border Force’s own stupidity. But that opens up the pathway to accurate and damning criticism of the Australian Border Force: why are things so bad that the public would believe them capable of such vast overreach?
Let’s be very clear. The Australian Border Force put out the stupid media release because it wanted to look tough. There is a paradoxical tension between the secrecy culture of the Government — everything is an ‘on water matter’ and we do not speak of ‘operational matters’ — and the desire of the Government to appear tough of immigration issues — creating an agency with the name ‘Border Force’, its logo a Stormtrooper.
The worry is how this tension becomes internalised in the agency’s culture. Back in 2005, the review into the circumstances around Cornelia Rau found that the Department of Immigration had a culture that:
constrains thinking, flexibility, and initiative and concentrates on functions, process, and quantitative measurement to the detriment of the achievement of policy outcomes.
In the report into the circumstances around Vivian Alvarez, the Ombudsman wrote:
It is difficult to form any conclusion other than that the culture of DIMIA was so motivated by imperatives associated with the removal of unlawful non-citizens that officers failed to take into account the basic human rights obligations that characterise a democratic society.
For some DIMIA officers, removing suspected unlawful non-citizens had become a dehumanised, mechanical process. The Inquiry is particularly worried by the fact that some DIMIA officers it interviewed said they thought they would be criticised for pursuing welfare-related matters instead of focusing on the key performance indicators for removal.
We can’t allow Immigration to go back down the path of harbouring these kinds of cultures, and yet Operation Fortitude suggested strongly that the public thinks we are heading there. Does social media whip people into an incoherent frenzy? The protest alone shows how ready a section of the community is to flip tables and take to the meme-laden placards. But that should encourage the Government to ensure that it is accountable, transparent, and operating with clean hands.
It shouldn’t be this difficult to show that these unhinged protesters are fringe lunatics.
More importantly, it shouldn’t be this easy to believe that the Government is acting improperly.