29 August 2015
by Mark Kenny

Border Force police action Operation Fortitude a case of uniformed insanity

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg.

No matter who decided it was a good idea for the newly uniformed paramilitary types of the Australian Border Force to team up with police to randomly intercept citizens in Melbourne for visa checks this weekend, it was a bad look for the organisation and a black eye for the Abbott government by association.

Operation Ineptitude - its official name having been "Operation Fortitude" - was an ill-conceived debacle from start to... well, to its inevitable abandonment.

For the Abbott government, which has lately elevated "community safety" to holy trinity status along with jobs and growth, the overreach of the Australian Border Force's adolescent excursion into police-state theatrics, could be seen as the natural extension of Coalition rhetoric.

Government insiders in unrelated portfolios were aghast on Friday amid suspicions of a "gung ho" culture fostered among immigration and border staff by their ex-detective minister, Peter Dutton.

Whether that's fair or not is hard to say. One however, noted the hamfisted operation was not the kind of thing that would have happened under Scott Morrison, who despite his hardline reputation, had kept his officials on a tight leash, and remained keenly attuned to the politics of his beat.

Demonstrators protest against Operation Fortitude in Melbourne on Friday afternoon.

Questions still abound. Whose idea was it then? Why Melbourne? And why the hell would you forward announce random visa checks in a defined area if the aim was to catch overstayers who could simply be elsewhere?

In the embarrassed aftermath, the Australian Border Force's national head Roman Quaedvlieg delivered one of the more unconvincing explanations of an organisation's misadventures seen in Canberra since the ute-gate debacle.

It was, he gruffly asserted, all fairly routine procedure that had merely been clumsily worded in a press release. Simply a "low level" communications and PR stuff up which just happened to trammel fundamental civil rights sacred to all Australians, such as the right to be free of police intimidation.

Protesters took to Melbourne's CBD streets.

As for this "low level" guff, the position of "Regional Commander for Victoria and Tasmania" seems pretty senior to the ordinary person. The man holding that office, Don Smith was quoted in that release in terms leaving little room for misunderstanding, advising that said officers would be positioned "at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with".

The irony is that in its uniformed zeal, the Australian Border Force was prepared to protect Australian borders, while trashing Australian values such as the right to move about unhindered without undue scrutiny or the use of arbitrary power.