Friday, 28 August 2015

Unintended Overreach or the Shape of Things to Come?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Australian Border Force (ABF) Roman Quaedvlieg and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton at the ABF swearing-in ceremony at the Parliament House (Source: Australian Border Force)
Unintended overreach of the shape of things to come? This is the question arises from this weekend's now-cancelled Operation Fortitude, a multi-agency operation slated to involve Victoria Police, authorised officers from Metro Trains, Yarra Trams and Taxi Services Commission, the Sheriff's Office and, infamously, the paramilitary Australian Border Force. This operation was intended to "crack down" on "anti-social behaviour" and, as Orwellian as that sounds, seems to be an accepted part of policing today.

But the morning press release that unleashed a torrent of derision and fury on the Interwebs quoted Border Force regional chief for Victoria and Tasmania Don Smith. It said ABF officers would be positioned "at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with".

There isn't much room for ambiguity in that statement. Far from the usual targeted intelligence-based operations undertaken by the erstwhile Immigration Department, this sounded an awful lot like stopping people in the street and asking "papers, please".

Over 3 1/2 hours after the Australian Border Force became #BorderFarce, the agency finally issued a clarifying statement, directly at odds with their illegal, bare-chested first release:

With a press conference (or "media opportunity" as Victoria Police termed it) scheduled for 2pm at Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, a crowd formed to protest the operation. With a spontaneous protest not the best sight to support their message, Victoria Police cancelled their "media opportunity", followed shortly thereafter by the entire operation. People power won.

So what went wrong?

Joint agency operations are not new and usually not that controversial. For example, Operation Rasper, Operation Mermaid and its inventively-titled sequel Operation Mermaid II are joint-operations that involved a range of agencies including Victoria Police, Sheriff's Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, VicRoads, and yes, the Department of Immigration.

Such operations are important for not only catching out offenders, but for building relationships between the various state and federal agencies – just look at the lead up to the 9/11 attacks if you want an example of what happens when agencies don't play nice. Operation Mermaid II, for example, caught up to nine alleged illegal immigrants.

In these operations, the Department of Immigration (one half of today's quasi-military Australian Border Force) ran checks on individuals after they were cited for other unrelated issues. This is a fairly non-controversial use of power and one most Australians would be comfortable with.

But the ABF's initial press release showed no such concern for comfort. It reached into territory that was at best, menacing, at worst, illegal. The ABF has no legal authority to invade a major city and ask for people's citizenship documents. Now, being the generous person I am, we can probably assume that was never the intent of the ABF, but it does raise questions as to why a forceful statement was authorised for release. As the ABF was intended to be a junior partner in Operation Fortitude, perhaps the release was merely designed to capture some media attention? Who knows. No doubt this will be a subject of intense scrutiny over the next couple of days.

So this was just a big misunderstanding then? Maybe. ABF Commissioner Quaedvlieg attempted to explain the whole thing away as a misunderstanding due to a "clumsily worded" press release: "There was never any intent for the Australian Border Force to proactively go out and seek immigration breaches out in Melbourne city."

But he would not be drawn on questionable legality of Ron Smith's quote in the original release, saying that, in context "it makes absolute, perfect, legitimate sense". What? What context? It's a press release, isn't that all the context you need? Nobody was misquoting Smith, the whole purpose of a press release is to provide all the context necessary. In what "context" does it make "absolute, perfect, legitimate sense"?

This is a question that will be asked repeatedly, no doubt, over the next few days. With the government's political capital well and truly in deficit, the secretive Australian Border Force will have little cover from its ministerial masters. Maybe, just maybe, we will get a couple of full and frank answers.

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