May the Force be without you

It’s astonishing that Australia, broke and sinking to its scuppers, can afford to create a new paramilitary force…but then, it’s an idea well past its first time. 

May the Force be without you

By an Un-named Correspondent, who is accustomed to seeing it all before

As a former customs officer with more than 20 years in the business until leaving late last century, the entire saga of the new Australian Border Force (ABF) washes over me like déjà vu observed in a hall of mirrors.

Every single time a Minister for Customs or equivalent has changed since Federation about 115 years ago, the new fearless, reforming, political maestro engages in some self-indulgent bureaucratic vandalism to put his (usually his) stamp on history…because, of course, new Ministers are so good that nobody who has been doing the job for years has ever previously had any bright ideas.

The border agency approach has mostly failed in the UK, US and Canada, and now the Coalition government wants to inflict a paramilitary stance on Australian civilian border control.

The new pseudo-seaguard results from a confected panic of the politicians’ own making: neither major side effectively manages risk, and each is brilliant at cravenly pandering to special interest lobbies and other rent seekers. Both major parties continue to fight in a tightening downward spiral on refugees, a relative non-issue for Australia: try being Jordan for a year, then we might actually have a problem to discuss, debate and “defeat”!

SOS The proposed made-for-television ABF[1] also proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Customs work.

The great majority of a customs officer’s daily duties consist of enforcing trade and revenue laws to ensure that import duty, GST and the like which is due to the government is collected. Officers could complete a 30-year career without ever seeing in anger an asylum seeker, weapons, drugs or anything more interesting than bulk sea cargo.

Customs, Immigration and Quarantine staff are presently public servants, not sworn law enforcement officers, although Minister Morrison’s militarization of the border agencies seems aimed at changing that, to counter those dire existential threats to the north we are unable to bug.

The ABF proposal also seems to assume that Immigration staff have frontline enforcement duties. Well, no, actually! If they need to resort to “force”, they’ve lost.

Other than the field detention teams who arrest visa overstayers and deport them, all IMMI officers are back-end public servants. By the way, the number of overstayers has in recent years been at least double the number of refugees by boat, roughly 20,000 overstayers a year. In relation to the panic about a few thousand refugee claimants, there are about 50,000 unlawful overstayers in Australia at any one time.

The ABF is a solution in search of a problem…and even then, they’re looking at the wrong problem area at that. The government has totally failed to justify the current proposal in terms other than ideology.

Kep Enderby...politicians were interesting back in the day. Enderby was an Esperanto speaker: later he became world president of the organisation
Kep Enderby…politicians were interesting back in the day. Enderby was an Esperanto speaker: later he became world president of the organisation

The entire proposal harks back to the fortunately short-lived Department of Police and Customs in the mid-1970s, luckily abolished when Malcolm Fraser took government as there were many justified concerns that the new agency would have too much power, like the Queensland Police under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, KCMG – see

The department lasted only from March to December 1975, though it was headed by a man who would become a knight, Alan Carmody. Reflective of the troubled times, it had three ministers in six months: Kep Enderby, Jim Cavanagh and Ivor Greenwood. (In particular, for a real sense of deja vu in 2014, see: Juddery, Bruce (19 December 1975). “Bureaucratic Convulsion: Eight departments go”. The Canberra Times p.1)

Of course the chances of senior bureaucrats advising Ministers exhibiting megalomaniac tendencies that the circumstances do not justify such a lurch to the paramilitary are extremely slim to nonexistent.

Former colleagues tell me that, with so many senior office holders these days, the widespread motivation in the public service is mainly personal advancement and careerism.

The concept of a duty to the wider Australian public has been at best diluted since the now-common summary dismissals of senior agency heads for political reasons. Today, being swept clean by a Hockey stick, the Australian Public Service is being dumbed down into traumatised silence for the next few years.

Some Ministers are better at claiming than doing. Some governments are better at criticising opponents than achieving a new direction. Some public servants are better at parroting politicians than producing original counter arguments, pro commonsense and against reinventing expensive square-wheeled mis-carriages, dragged by white elephants.

When public service chiefs appear to mirror the mindset and the mien of the ministerial master, beware: it’s a bit like a student plagiarising to pass an exam. The student might achieve a pass mark, but there’s no net gain to knowledge or progress of the individual or the institution.

I’d like to say “watch this space”, to hear the views of those dedicated Customs people I used to work with. Then I remind myself that many who remain in Customs are of course cowed by restrictions on their off-duty behaviour, gag orders on public servants, and the genuine risk of misconduct charges and prosecution under the Crimes Act.

They may as well be ‘’on water’’ refugees. We’re not allowed to hear anything about them, either.

For a summary of how the lefterati view the situation, please see Mungo MacCallum, who is polishing his jackboots and dusting off his SS (Secret Squirrel) uniform in case he receives a summons to join Morro’s Monkeys, as the new ABF Kustoms Kriegsmarine Komrades are likely to be called:

Confirming that the more things change the more they stay the same in Australian Government border politics, see Dr David Day, Contraband & Controversy: the customs history of Australia from 1901, AGPS Press, 1996.

[1] What’s the betting there’a a new ‘Australian Border Force’ show on Aussie TV within six months of the new uniforms being issued? Sponsored by the Australian Government, of course.

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