The Australian Border Force is based on an agency that was created in Britain two years earlier, but with its accent. Operation Sovereign Borders changed the culture in Australia of the military, police, and customs agencies as they were forced out of their silos to focus on a common goal: stopping refugees from arriving by boat.
Only 14 months before, Scott Morrison had announced that a new armed, uniformed force would be formed. He described it as a “reform dividend” from stopping the boat traffic.
The department, which has been around for 70 years, now has a new function: “Border Protection.” The old labels — “Multiculturalism,” ‘Citizenship’ and ‘Ethnic Affairs’ — were relics from an era when social cohesion was the main goal. The Border Force, which emerged from the chrysalis that was the old Customs Service, with its new uniforms and ranks, in mid-winter, was another indication of Canberra’s growing concern with security and militarisation.
The political narrative was still dominated by fear and safety, just as it had been since 2001 when John Howard won a surprising election victory declaring repeatedly: ” we will decide who comes into this country and under what circumstances they come“.
He would reassure the public that Australia was still taking in more refugees than it needed, but during the first years of his premiership, the percentage of residents born overseas fell. The Australian ear, after decades of multiculturalism, was once more tuned to the new arrivals.
Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton congratulated the new Commissioner of the Australian Border Force, Roman Qaedvlieg, at the swearing-in ceremonies held in Canberra on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 A.A.P. Image/Lukas Coch.
Read more: Cruel, costly and Ineffective: Australia’s Offshore Processing Asylum Seeker Policy Turns 9
Taking it to the streets
In 2015, Australia had a proportion of residents born overseas that was just shy of the record-breaking 30% of the 1890s. However, multiculturalism remained a dirty word.
Quaedvlieg’s statement was delivered without irony. He reduced the role of the nearly 6,000-strong agency to its essence, “to protect our Utopia”. Isaiah Berlin, a political philosopher who lived decades before, had demolished utopias as “fictions deliberately constructed to humiliate those in power.”
Operation Fortitude was announced a month after Border Force’s launch. Officers would walk the streets in Melbourne, seeking proof of residency for “anyone we come across.” The warning was very clear: If you commit fraud at the border, it is only a question of time until you are caught.
Prime Minister Abbott a href=”https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/prime-minister-tony-abbott says border force operation fortitude was a mistake.20150829.gjammd.html”>declared/a>, “Nothing happened here except the issue of a poorly worded press release.” Prime Minister Abbott said “Not,hing has happened except for the release of a poorly-worded press statement”.
In a few years, central casting’s uniformed commission had disappeared. However, the intent remained unchanged. The number of immigrants may be on the rise, but the focus remains on exclusion, and national security is at the heart of Australian public policy.
Protesters gathered outside Flinders Street Station to protest the Australian Border Force Operation Fortitude plan of spot-checking visas on the streets of Melbourne. Friday, August 28, 2015. A.A.P. Image/Mal Fairclough
Ills from the past and present
Since 1901, the Australian utopia has been managed by deciding who can come to Australia and under what conditions they can enter.
Isaiah Berlin Notes the:
[…] The idea of a perfect society is an old dream. It may be due to the ills in the world today, which cause men to imagine what the world would look like without them… Or it could simply be a social fantasy – merely expressing the poet’s imagination.
Australia was filled with mediocre poetry at the time Federation. If conceiving of Australia as a utopia is an exercise in poetic imagination, then it’s bound to be flawed.
Tom Roberts’ portrayal of the opening of Australia’s first parliament, May 9, 1901. By H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall & York in Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings. State Library of Victoria/Tom Roberts
The first step in creating Australia’s white utopia, was brutal and relentless. The first step was to humiliate and eliminate the First Nations, who had lived on the continent for generations and still did in 1788, through deliberate and negligent neglect. They managed this with an ancient, intricate patchwork of languages and social relations as well as trade and lore.
The Australian Constitution excluded the First Nations from the Census, but by the time the 3,7 million new arrivals were Australians, in 1901, was reduced to 90,000 people.
Men who debated legislation that would form the nation chose to turn their backs. But they were not ignorant of the past.
In a world defined by race, there were still arguments, opposition and shame. The parliament debated the recognition of the survivors before them, months after Australia had become legally and unequivocally white.
Richard O’Connor , future High Court Justice, argued that the same principle should be applied to Aboriginal people in four former colonies who already have the right of vote. He declared that it would be “a monstrous act, an unseen piece of barbarism” to deny the Aboriginals who occupied our land any right to vote.