The ABF in Melbourne: More than politics

A fundamental mistake was made in the aftermath of the Australian Border Force fiasco in Melbourne two weeks ago. In the days following, attention focused on the Minister and whether a media release had been approved. Since then, many people see the entire episode as a reflection on the government. A government so evil they wanted to profile migrants.


The actions on day had nothing to do with daily politics. This excuse was born of cynicism and partisanship and should be dismissed. The truth is more worrisome.

The type of operation to occur has a long history. They are not new and they are not scary. I take the Commissioner of the ABF at his word as compliance activities are part and parcel of any immigration framework. Immigration officials will hang around in the background and do what they are told by police officers. This is the correct hierarchy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, the media release flagging the event sounded very different to what actually would have occurred. I thought racial profiling was a proud new addition to standard duties. I was heartened when this was rejected. But it dawned on me later the episode – the process itself – was another signpost along a very uncertain road.

Most people would not have heard about the Australian Border Force until that day. At the time, this new institution was less than two months old, being the combination of parts of the Customs and Immigration bureaucracy. Being new, the cultural environment of the organisation is still taking shape. Those at the top have flagged the desired direction with important speeches (which I have written about here and here). Those who fundamentally disagree have been leaving in droves.

The fact the media release itself was able to clear the internal bureaucracy is the story. This exposes deep gaps within the institution. Critical oversight and administrative controls are missing. When I was at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, you couldn’t sneeze in public without it being cleared by Sandi Logan who headed up the National Communication Branch. This approach had pros and cons. For example our innovative new migration blog was turned into corporate mush after the comms people got their hands on it but on the whole, it was a functional approach. In a brand new institution, rebadged as a national security enforcement agency, you would have thought these considerations would have been a higher priority.

And this is where we should be worried. If something like this has not attracted the proper attention, what else has been left to junior and mid-level officials, with little experience who are being primed for a focus on national security? From the ABF website:

We have significant service and enforcement functions, including:

  • facilitating the lawful passage of people and goods
  • investigations, compliance and enforcement in relation to illicit goods and immigration malpractice; and
  • onshore detention, removals and support to regional processing arrangements

Significant service and enforcement functions deserve more attention and institutional support. Yet in announcing an internal inquiry into the events leading to the chaos, the Commissioner offloaded at least some of the blame onto the media. This was hardly mentioned in the media (thanks Crikey) and neatly captures how culture can be shaped even when responding to fuckups.

One serious political concern is Ministerial oversight. Scott Morrison is perceived very differently depending on your political background. However no-one should doubt his intelligence or capacity to achieve a desired outcome. He was a Minister who drove the creation of the ABF and had strong direction. Peter Dutton is a former law enforcement official himself however he does not appear to be particularly well-suited to administrative duties associated with massive bureaucratic transformation. This is not politics per se but how government functions in a space where the lines of policy and operations are blurred at best.

Unlike the events in Melbourne, these transformational changes are happening away from the front page. In the long-term, this fiasco might be one of the best things to ever happen as it has focused attention on the ABF. For example, for the first time outside obscure migration blogs, I saw someone critically evaluate the following new definition of the border:

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.

To me, this is an attempt to stretch the power of the institution into many non-customs, non-immigration domains.The ABF want a seat at the big boys table. The statement is also rather crude and ill-considered as they have defined the border as all of Australia.

The idea of the ABF was rejected by the Gillard government. In the wake of ‘stop the boats’, we’ve ended up with an enforcement agency running immigration without anyone noticing. You can blame the government if you want for the events in Melbourne but this would be a mistake. A brand new institution has emerged without some fundamental ground rules in place. Hopefully this will be addressed in the short-term as migration and perceptions about migration are too important to be sacrificed to national security.

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