The role of Borders: An ominous future

I used to think people who worried about language and rhetoric were focusing on the wrong part of problems. I was wrong. Language acts to emphasise what is important. The ability to shape public opinion by words and context is critical. Nowhere is this more evident than how as a society we talk about immigration. Many examples abound. I want to focus on one and what it portends for the future.

After the ALP lost the 2013 election, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was renamed the Department of Border Protection. On Thursday, the new Secretary – Mr. Michael Pezzullo – provided the “new” Department with his worldview of how we should imagine immigration in a speech titled, “Sovereignty in an Age of Global Interdependency: the Role of Borders“.

Mr. Pezzullo appears a realist in the most traditional sense. His view of global order is heavily influenced by Henry Kissinger, who he references glowingly early on. Here Mr. Pezzullo hints at what is to come:

“It could be said that the political and economic dimensions of the global order are, however, in tension. As the global order seeks to become more open, with fewer constraints on the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, the primary building block of the global order – the state – retains its ancient coding as a vehicle for territoriality and exclusion.”

Mr Pezzullo leaves no doubt where he sits in relation to any tension. After outlining one view that borders can be seen as “a cost and time imposition” flowing from the ‘economic logic of globalisation’, his central thesis boils down to the following paragraphs:

“As the Secretary of the department which is charged with protecting our borders, I prefer to see borders in a very different way. I see them as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty. Rather  than  anticipating  or,  much  worse,  desiring  the  emergence  of  a  ‘borderless  world’ – a concept which makes no sense in the global order of sovereign states – we should see borders as the connection points of a globally connected world. In other words, global travel and trade, labour mobility, and the migration and movement of peoples are best mediated and managed by connected border systems.

The border is a strategic national asset. Border control points, systems and processes sit astride supply chains and travel pathways. The very design of borders can add to economic competitiveness and productivity, by fostering rapid movement and border entry or exit. Fostering legitimate trade and travel, while remaining vigilant for national security, law enforcement and community protection purposes, and while also using border controls as an extension of economic revenue and industry policy, are not contradictory policy objectives. Today they are intrinsically integrated and connected functions of state.”

I read this as strong borders are good borders. Borders must be protected and controlled given the implications they have for the sovereignty of the nation-state. It is in the emphasis where we see Mr. Pezzullo’s intent. A perfunctory nod to the economics of globalisation and perhaps a different future of how people move globally is followed by an opus on security. By co-opting trade and goods into the same discussion as people, he immediately renders immigration as only a partial component of how to think about the border.

Never before have we seen a speech like this given by the very person charged with bureaucratic oversight of immigration. What are we being protected from? What in our past highlights the need for immediate, visceral redefinition of what a border means in Australia? Call me skeptical but I do not see the justification for this approach. Like smashing an ant with a sledgehammer, we have come to imagine a world filled with drugs, crime and thugs who seek exclusively to harm us. The border envisaged this way can protect us.

Above all else, the overriding focus on control paints an implicit portrait where people are to be kept at bay. Since the post-war period in Australia, immigration has meant many things to many people. But at its core, the message has been one of attraction; an Australia where the new migrant, while perhaps not welcomed per se, is accepted and the act of migration encouraged. Ten pound Poms, assisted migrants and the opening up of our immigration policy to labour demand in the last two decades all scream “Please Come Here”.

Yet here we see a different focus, one where the process of control is placed above all else. In Mr Pezzullo’s world view, I see a reductive logic of this process. There is no space free from oversight or authority of the state. There is secrecy where required, which is often. There must be enforcement and constant success against innumerous enemies. This methodology will inevitably seep into our immigration framework, manifesting itself in regulation and policy that is ever suspicious and errs on the side of restriction, not openness. The themes of this speech are found elsewhere. In the Department’s new “Blueprint for Integration“, a similar definition of the border is promulgated:

The border is not a line on a map. Our focus is on the border in the sense of a complex continuum stretching ahead of and behind the border, including the physical border. It is a space that enables and controls the flow of people and the movement of goods through complex supply chains. We call this the border continuum.

I have thought seriously about the second sentence above and I have yet to understand what exactly it means. But I do know a border is a line on a map and theorising that it isn’t is done to achieve one purpose: to create an environment where security becomes pre-eminent. The ‘border continuum’ exists for this purpose and this alone.

To traditional liberals, to social progressives, to neo-conservatives, this language is anathema to how the world is. To a small subset of people who rely on a beefed up national security framework for political relevance, this is manna from heaven. Yet the most surprising aspect to this language is the silence we hear in response. The concept of immigration as a foundation of modern Australia, a nation-building foundation, is being lost to history and the road ahead is grim. Let me provide the most obvious example.

In the United States there was once an ethos about immigration. A myth of migrants building a new country, combining with a spirit connected to a pioneering past. Some pretend it lingers in the present day but in truth, it has been lost. “Give me your tired, your poor” was replaced with a fence along the Mexico-United States border. A progressive president attempts immigration reform only after having claimed the mantle of deporter-in-chief. The rhetoric and imagery of security when immigration is discussed is inescapable and the idea of America is worse for it. The failure to pass immigration reform or consider the benefits of change is due above all else to how security is the dominant point of discussion when one turns to immigration.

This is the future Mr. Pezzullo wants us to confront in Australia. It is one where the border is in the strictest sense both a symbol and a reality of the state asserting itself over the individual. Will this occur also in Australia? Will the language of borders and security transpose itself from the asylum debate into a migration debate? As a society, despite the ill will towards asylum seekers, in the main we have been able to distinguish between those fleeing persecution and those coming with an official stamp. This is a uniquely Australian ability and it has provided a blanket for multiculturalism and how we think about migration.

But I’m not sure how much longer that can survive if a new culture embedded in the rhetoric of security plants itself in public debate. If the first thing you think about when someone says immigration is the border, the game is already lost. I did not think we are at this point but perhaps I’m wrong and we’re already arrived.

Where are the alternative voices? Where is the business community? Immigration has given so much yet for many in industry, the response is passivity. Gladly accepting the benefits when times are good yet acquiescence when it is most important. A peek to the United States; the reaction of business as a collective was too little, too late. The narrative shifted as they basked in the economic sunshine of the 1990s and it has yet to recover. Where is the political outcry from (small l) liberals? Where is the counter narrative from social progressives? 18c showed the latent capacity that exists within the community for a powerful, positive message to counter a negative trajectory.

Perhaps most tellingly, I do not hear about this story in the media. This speech was not reported by a single outlet (that I can find) and the “blueprint for integration” document came and went with commentary focusing on public servants losing their jobs and without reference to what this means for immigration itself.

Finally, there was another part of Mr. Pezzullo’s speech which gave me pause:

“Tonight I would like to pose some questions about our future, while acknowledging and celebrating the achievements of our past. In 1945, Australia had a population of fewer than 7.5 million. We were predominantly of Anglo-Celtic heritage. In June 2015, just as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Department, Australia will have a population of around 24 million – around three times as many as in 1945. More than 7 million people have migrated permanently to Australia since 1945, and almost 5 million have become Australian citizens since the status of ‘Australian Citizenship’ was established in 1949. We are a more diverse society. When we transition from our current state to the new Department next year, and commence on the path of the next phase of our journey, we should take a moment to reflect on what has been achieved since 1945. I contend that we will be able to declare the original mission of 1945 – to build the population base – to have been accomplished.”

“Mission accomplished”. The successful conclusion of a 70 year goal allows a new Department a new focus. Yet where this focus takes us as a country is unknown. It appears the emphasis on nation, on the benefit, on how immigration has given Australia so much will be relegated. Contrast this to the approach of a previous Secretary of the Department. Andrew Metcalfe gave the majority of his career to the bureaucracy of immigration. His speeches were infused with rhetoric also about what immigration meant to Australia but with a very different emphasis:

“Our job as a department is to help build our modern Australian nation – we do that through managing the movement of people in and out of our country, and through the settlement of people here for our inclusive, yet diverse society.”

“Debates about immigration policy are a feature of our Australian history and no doubt will feature predominantly in our future as we continue to define who we are as a nation. However, one thing that is an undeniable fact is that immigration has greatly enriched Australia. The Australia that we love and live in today is a very different place, a far stronger place built through great diversity, than the Australia of 1945 when the department was first established.”

While of course he also spoke of security and compliance, here you can see what an alternative vision looks like. Instead of drawing from Kissinger, Mr. Metcalfe found solace in the words of Teddy Roosevelt (see final paragraph). The difference could not be more stark.

I do not share Mr. Pezzullo’s worldview. I believe it is damaging to how we see Australia as a nation and what immigration means. Reducing immigration to something managed by a border – “not a line on a map” but a giant fence between us and everybody else – renders priority to notions of control, enforcement and security. It ignores the people who make immigration what it is and with it, ignores social, cultural and economic imperatives that make Australia what it is today. This is a pathway towards a dangerous future.

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