Beware The Border Force Fetish

The Abbott Government’s proposed Australian Border Force is an incredible and serious militarisation of our borders.

On Friday Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced the Government would create this new top-level super agency to combine all the enforcement functions of Immigration and Customs.

The Australian Border Force will sit beside the Australian Defence Force, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police as a core national security agency.

The result will be something like America’s Department of Homeland Security.

Morrison’s speech from Friday is worth a look. It is the embodiment of the bizarre border fetishism that has been building over the last decade.

Back when the Coalition unveiled Operation Sovereign Borders, the name seemed like a bizarre non sequitur – how could a border be sovereign?

Turns out there was no such non sequitur. The Coalition is trying to give the border a sort of independent moral value. Morrison wants to elevate the notion of the “border” to the centre of liberal political philosophy:

“Like national defence, protecting Australia’s borders is core business for any national government.”

“Our border is a national asset … Our border creates the space for us to be who we are and to become everything we can be as a nation.”

This is stirring rhetoric but very strange.

A nation’s borders are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. They are only useful insofar as they facilitate more central roles for government: that is, national and personal security, the maintenance of a legal order, and the furtherance of social goals.

There is no reason to suggest their function – that is, creating a space for us to be who we are – is under any threat. Certainly no threat that would justify building a grand bureaucratic empire.

For instance, regardless of where you stand on the asylum seeker issue, large scale boat arrivals are only a threat to the orderly management of our refugee quotas, not our borders.

The “securing our borders” stuff is a catchphrase, not a policy. Our borders are among the most secure in the world. Honestly – when asylum seekers arrive in Australian waters, they phone the authorities.

The Australian Border Force is formally part of the 2014-15 Budget. It is supposed to save taxpayer money. We’ll see. Administrative savings have a habit of disappearing.

But Morrison told the Lowy Institute the Australian Border Force is not a mere efficiency measure. It is structural reform. The idea is not just government restructure but to recast immigration control as a pillar of national security. This is a big shift.

Until now, the Immigration Department has had a pretty simple role: to stamp the visas of foreigners. It is a glorified customer service agency.

Accordingly, the department’s role in national security is extremely limited. It administers the Movement Alert List: a database of identities of concern that is triggered when those identities want to have their visa stamped. But Immigration doesn’t create this list. Most of the identities are identified by intelligence agencies.

It’s the same with the famous refugee security assessments. The Immigration Department just administers the assessments made of asylum seekers by ASIO.

Still, while Immigration Department practice may have little to do with national security, the politics of immigration is drenched in it. The Coalition has often tried to tie refugees to national security. And this confected relationship provided the obvious spark for the development of the Australian Border Force.

Immigration is not a national security agency and never should be. Yet as disturbing as that change is, Morrison’s vision appears to be even grander. Customs is receiving a big promotion too.

Until the 2013 election, Customs was part of the Attorney-General’s portfolio. This makes sense. Customs traverses a wide range of ministerial areas. It enforces things like tariffs, import and export controls, as well as prohibitions on importing illegal goods like drugs and firearms.

Where Customs sits in the administrative hierarchy is significant. Before Customs was with the Attorney-General, it was variously ensconced with the Department of Industry, Trade, and Business, reflecting its role enforcing protectionism.

When the Coalition won in September, Customs became the responsibility of the Minister for Immigration.

Recall the big song and dance Morrison made about guns imported to Australia: “If you cannot trust Labor to stop the boats, then it is no surprise that we cannot trust them to stop the guns either.”

Now that it is being integrated into the Australian Border Force, Customs too will be ranked alongside the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and the Defence Force.

Smuggling drugs and firearms are serious crimes, but not quite on the level of terrorism and warfare.

So here’s an easy prediction. Bumping Immigration and Customs up the bureaucratic hierarchy will give those two organisations new influence, ambition, and ultimately power.

And by recasting them as part of our national security infrastructure, those agencies will orientate their core business towards that new, sexier, and more threatening security role.

Why easy to predict? Because that’s exactly what happened when the United States created the Department of Homeland Security. That monstrosity is expensive, expanding, and working to gain new powers. Until recently, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement division was lobbying forthe power to track citizens’ movements through licence plate scanning.

The last thing Australia needs is yet another grand and ambitious security bureaucracy pushing for powers that reduce our civil liberties.

The Australian Border Force may turn out to be one of the most significant, and dangerous, decisions of the 2014-15 Budget.