Scott Morrison’s recent tour of the Christmas Island internment facility was entertaining for all its choreographed awkwardness. In one photo he poses, hand on hip, affecting an air of easygoing blokeishness. The room is white, bleak, giving the impression of an aseptic suburban dentist’s office. In another, he walks casually with uniformed officers, surveying a steel fence several times his height. In both cases, the suggestion exuding from every pixel is that there is no need to transfer refugees to the mainland, actually. The image of a security fence towering over a former immigration minister is, while crude in its execution, a poetic depiction of border politics.
Later that week, a story broke about how the Australian Border Force failed to meet its sea patrol target by twenty per cent, forcing the Department of Defence to pick up the slack. Unnamed senior brass blamed budget cuts and spoke of restructuring. We can, perhaps, forgive cynics for viewing this with suspicion.
A leaked briefing which amounts to the Border Force jangling an empty cup was conveniently timed. Of course, security discourse in the lead up to a federal election is far from a groundbreaking strategy. The arguments have been streamlined to clinical perfection, reduced to vacuous repartee about ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ borders.
The problem of insufficient sea patrols is that it is weak on borders. Strength is good, it wins votes. The solution is simple: more money, more uniformed personnel, more guns, more ships, more patrols. There is no space to ask if the targets were reasonable or even necessary. If there was, we might also ask: what is the point of the Border Force anyway?
The rationale for the existence of a pseudo-militarised law enforcement agency is far from self-evident. When Morrison, then Immigration Minister, announced the Border Force in 2014, he was adamant that it was not a savings measure. Nor did there seem to be any fatal deficiencies with the prior Customs Service or Immigration Department.
Justifications instead referred euphemistically to challenges and threats. The ABF Commissioner would be on par with the Federal Police Commissioner and the Director General of ASIO, Morrison said. The new agency was, in theory, a security agency intimately tied to the counter-terrorism response. It would patrol our territorial waters and keep us safe from danger.
Of course, the peril that the Border Force is designed to protect us against is not terrorism but refugees arriving by boat. What distinguishes the Border Force from its predecessors is that its principal occupation is to illegally tow vessels back or intern asylum seekers in camps. It is a nation-building exercise of systematic and brutal exclusion.
The use of genteel euphemisms about threats stems from the fact that powerless civilians make poor villains. This is where the paramilitary nature of the Border Force betrays its raison d’etre. A civilian agency would imply that immigration is a procedural matter involving regular people. An armed militia presupposes an enemy or some equivalently violent threat.
The Coalition has revealed that it will now close the Christmas Island facility, making it clear that it was only ever political theatre, a macabre $158 million trinket Morrison brought to show-and-tell. The same is true of the Border Force, which is every bit a performance act as his carefully stage-managed photo-ops.
The Border Force sits outside the Department of Defence because asylum-seeking is not a security issue. Despite its uniforms, ranks, insignias, medals and name it is not really a military force. It is only meant to look like one. This ostentatious vanity is intended to prove that the organisation is protecting us from danger.
The Border Force constructs a public that is under threat and a state that acts in self-defence. It is instrumental to the construction of refugees as dangerous folk devils and therefore to the justification of offshore detention. For an audience fatigued by reportage on internment, the very existence of the Border Force tells a story.
If Force was the first step, then Home Affairs was the logical, authoritarian progression. A super-ministry comprising the Border Force, the Federal Police and ASIO was the price Turnbull paid for Dutton’s political protection – although readers need not be reminded how that turned out. More importantly, Home Affairs was both based on the Border Force and reinforced the ideology behind it.
Turnbull spoke in silvery bureaucratic tones of ‘challenges’ that the super-ministry would solve, echoing Morrison’s sales pitch for the Border Force. What it did in practice, though, was bring domestic security and a potent idea called ‘border security’ so close together so as to be indivisible.
With the advent of Home Affairs, any structural distinction between anti-terror and anti-refugee measures evaporated entirely. It is rhetoric conflating boat people with terrorists made material. The human cost of the internment regime, then, is the premium for the use of fear as a political tool.
Politicians have declined any calls for de-escalation. Some are ideologically invested in the expansion of the security state and by extension their executive power. Others worry that pithy soundbites will cause them to haemorrhage votes: ‘weak on borders’, ‘unconcerned about security’, ‘indifferent to the safety of Australians,’ et cetera.
Labor long ago made a Faustian pact with border politics by committing itself to internment. So, despite some token criticism, Labor looks set to retain Home Affairs. In for a penny, in for a pound.
The major parties remain committed to an imaginary centre which is deeply regressive. A brawny security apparatus, the torture of internment – as the former Nauruan president has called it – and annual cuts to immigration all draw bipartisan support.
As recently as February, Morrison said that ‘paedophiles and murderers’ would infiltrate the mainland using medical transfers while Home Affairs called the bill a ‘security risk’. At that point, it appeared as if this election would be fought, once again, on immigration.
Suspect contracts awarded by Home Affairs and the atrocity at Christchurch quashed such candidness, at least for the time being. Instead, politicos speak in stage whispers about hospital waits and congestion, as if internment and militarizing the border were the answer for crumbling infrastructure and services.
‘Abolish the Australian Border Force’ sounds radical but it is rather benign. A demilitarised and transparent civilian agency could execute the operations of the Force just as well. Likewise, dismantling Home Affairs merely restores a state of affairs which nobody faulted before 2017. These entities exist in service of career pursuits for power but, more than that, they conjure an apocalyptic vision of the outside world which promotes inhumane policies.
If we are to end internment, we must first alter our institutions. Though radical reform is urgent, change isn’t forthcoming. It is possible that Australia will vote with compassion, but that hope seems naive so long as too many accept the superficial rationales for the Border Force and Home Affairs.