BORDERING ON THE FARCICAL
Last week’s botched Border Force blitz reinforced public perceptions of incompetence, writes Paul Syvret
BACK in 2013, on the eve of the federal election, the Coalition released a communications policy document that effectively supported the introduction of internet filtering.
The slip-up, which ran contrary to the Coalition’s position, was blamed on a “poorly worded” statement.
At the time, then opposition leader Tony Abbott conceded there “was a failure of quality control”.
“As soon as that was realised, it was fixed. Now I’m happy to take full responsibility, happy to take full personal responsibility for every mistake that the Coalition makes, and frankly that’s what adult government is all about. The buck stops with me,” he said.
What a difference a couple of years can make.
On Friday, Abbott’s unique brand of adult government brought an incredulous Australia the botched Operation Fortitude.
This was to be a law and order blitz that, according to what Abbott now dismisses as a “very badly worded” press release from the Australian Border Force, would involve a series of visa checks on the streets of Melbourne.
“ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with,” Victorian and Tasmanian commander of Border Force, Don Smith, was quoted as saying.
For good measure, just in case there was any ambiguity in that statement, he added: “You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.”
The message was pretty simple and the connotations downright sinister – officers from a paramilitary wing of our security agencies would be patrolling the streets of a major Australian city conducting random identity checks.
Social media erupted in shock and anger – something the likes of Twitter and Facebook do exceptionally well – with the obvious question being the possible use of racial profiling to determine which citizens Border Force did “cross paths with” and who may be targets for identity checks.
Border Force issued a clarifying statement on Friday morning saying that: “To be clear, the ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets ... the ABF does not target of the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.”
The damage had been done by that stage and the day descended into fiasco as press briefings were cancelled and a flash protest formed at the Flinders St intersection in Melbourne.
Ultimately the whole sorry operation – Border Farce as it was quickly dubbed – was called off.
Since then the Government and Border Force chiefs have been frantically backpedalling and trying to locate somewhere else for the proverbial buck to stop.
According to Border Force head Roman Quaedvlieg, Minister Peter Dutton’s office “is not involved”.
“The press release was circulated at a regional level in the state of Victoria. It’s low level. I didn’t see it. It’s a low level in the organisation as far as I’m concerned.”
That may be, except for the fact that the minister’s office did receive at least one draft of the statement before it was released but, according to Dutton, “no one read it”.
Further, it has since been confirmed that Quaedvlieg’s own strategic communications adviser, Matt Wardell, was also sent a copy of the media statement.
Presumably the Commissioner didn’t read it either, all of which is a bit disturbing for a department which may soon be granted the power to strip people of their Australian citizenship.
USUALLY LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES DON’T TELEGRAPH THEIR MOVES IN ADVANCE
The other curious thing in this whole affair is why an allegedly “routine” operation would be the subject of a media release in the first place.
Usually law enforcement agencies don’t telegraph their moves in advance because, well, just maybe the people they are trying to catch might decide it would be better to be somewhere else on the day.
In the course of this farce the Government has achieved several things, not the least of which was to reinforce public perceptions of arrant incompetence married to a finely honed ability to avoid taking responsibility when things go pear-shaped.
Secondly, the whole operation works to spread more fear and division in our community: “illegal aliens are among us and they will be rooted out”. Put ’em in the van.
On a positive note, though, it also demonstrates that the Australian public – and take a bow here Melbourne, you did us proud – will not lie supine and submissive in the face of threats to our basic freedoms.
As the Abbott Government’s own handpicked Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, said over the weekend: “On Friday, it didn’t matter where you were on the political spectrum. Every Melburnian understood in a free and pluralist society it was their responsibility to defend freedoms and basic decency for all.”
Abbott has said people who demean the Border Force – presumably by using social media hashtags like #BorderFarce – should be ashamed.
No. They should be proud that Australians, en masse, called “bullshit”, and drew a line in the street.