Culture

A Solemn Recap Of That Time The Australian Border Force Nearly Invaded Melbourne

It's been a weird day.

The Australian Border Force has given us a number of reasons to be sceptical over the past month.

First, there’s the fact that it was created in the first place — a consolidation of the existing Customs and Immigration departments, the ABF has cost the government an estimated $10 million in rebranding at a time when those in the detention centres they patrol reportedly aren’t even provided essential clothing. Then there’s the overbearing militarism and nationalism of the whole operation — more than $6 million of the overall funds have been spent on intimidating apparel for officers, and their organisation’s name has literally been plastered across Australian flags at our major airports.

Today, there was this: in conjunction with Victoria Police and transport officers, the ABF announced a joint operation to patrol the Melbourne CBD this weekend — which is, incidentally, not next to the border of anything. In a statement this morning, the Victorian and Tasmanian Regional Commender of the ABF Don Smith outlined the group’s mission as “promoting a secure and cohesive society”, and in service of this, officers would be focussing on those travelling to and from the city and targeting a number of things including “anti-social behaviour” and “outstanding warrants”.

“ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with,” Smith said. “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.”

Naturally, when presented with this plan to presumably grab random pedestrians by the collar and demand to see their passport, people were concerned.

The outrage soon grew so intense that a snap protest was staged to coincide with the ABF’s official media announcement at Flinders Street Station. The crowds soon blocked the major intersection.

In response to this, the ABF released a new statement trying to clarify their points. “The ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets and does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity,” it read. However, with little else revealed about how they were going to check outstanding warrants or enforce anything in their purview at all, the complaints continued to flow. Even their unrelated posts on Facebook were being flooded with barbed criticism:

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Thankfully, common sense soon prevailed and Victoria Police announced the cancellation of the whole thing.

“We understand there has been a high level of community interest and concern which has been taken into consideration when making this decision,” they wrote on Facebook. “Victoria Police’s priority is the safety and wellbeing of the whole community and we will continue to work with our partner agencies to achieve this.”

The ABF are yet to release their own statement to this effect, presumably because their PR people currently have their heads buried deep in their hands and/or desks, but many others have been quick to commend the decision.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has praised Victoria Police for their eventual decision on Twitter, Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt has praised the people who made their voices heard, and many others are choosing to turn their anger on the organisations who had scheduled the operation in the first place.

In a statement given to The Guardian, Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles has called directly on Peter Dutton to “come out of hiding and provide an explanation for the shambles that has seen a cross agency operation compromised and a key Government agency left red faced”.

“Mr Dutton needs to immediately explain to the community what on earth has transpired,” he said.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has also kicked into gear, accusing the federal government of all-out fascism. “Joseph Stalin would be proud of Tony Abbott,” he said, in what is maybe the most intense first line to a media release in history. “Just as East Germany’s Stasi would be delighted with the Australian Border Force. Why even General Pinochet would be impressed,” he said.

“The community was outraged at the prospect of the random visa checks and should remain incensed with the Government for thinking such an activity would be acceptable in the first place … Since the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 Australians have been subject to countless new security law excesses, including the mandatory retention of metadata by the current government. To now have the prospect of the Australian Border Force ‘randomly’ stopping people in Australia is surely the final straw.”

This clearly isn’t the last we’ll be hearing about either the operation itself or the controversies surrounding the Australian Border Force more generally. But for a major initiative to be announced so confidently by a number of major governmental organisations and shut down mere hours later is a perhaps unprecedented indignity, and one that won’t be readily forgotten.

In fact, those few hours should be noted as a symbol of the power people really do have. When a government you didn’t vote for or don’t agree with starts making big decisions about major national policy or policing, it’s easy to feel pretty irrelevant or ineffectual. But today, each Tweet and message and person who rocked up to express their opinions actually made a real, tangible difference.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.