Is it Australian Border Security Force or farce?

You couldn’t make this up. Some months ago, Australian customs and immigration services were integrated with a new paramilitary-type organization called the Australian Border Security Force, known as the ABF, which began operations July 1. People remarked at the time that their uniforms — a rebranding exercise that cost us overburdened taxpayers 10 million Australian dollars — were reminiscent of some sinister forces in history, but then forgot about it.

Maybe the ABF suffered from attention deficit syndrome. Last Friday, they came back into the nation’s focus with a vengeance. And then some.

The regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith, issued a public warning that ABF officers would be positioned “at various locations” downtown, “speaking with any individual we cross paths with” over the weekend. The public was warned: “You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.” Moreover, the force would target “everything from anti-social behavior to outstanding warrants,” with a particular focus on “people traveling to, from and around” the city center.

Code-named Operation Fortitude, the announcement attracted immediate outrage and a spontaneous protest call went out on social media. Within hours a sizable and growing crowd had converged on Melbourne’s central business district, badly disrupting traffic but drawing considerable public support for the cause. The recurring refrain was that Australian soldiers had given their lives to fight this sort of fascist nonsense and we did not need Nazi and Stalinist storm troopers in our country. Melbourne in particular is a multicultural, multiethnic and welcoming cosmopolitan city and we mean to keep it that way, thank you very much.

Faced with the swelling protest in downtown Melbourne and a rising political firestorm across the country, the operation was as suddenly canceled at 3 p.m. ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg provided an unconvincing public explanation. Conceding that the press release sounded “menacing,” he said a standard police operation had been misinterpreted owing to a clumsily worded press release by low-level personnel. Umm, chief: We Australians hold the right to be free of police intimidation pretty sacred. Your force’s announcement caused so many jaws to drop so far down that some are still stuck to the pavement. Besides, someone who has command of your force for two states does not qualify as low-level.

The public, political and media backlash has yet to crest. Questions need answering on the ill-conceived and badly communicated plan to intercept people going about their daily business in the middle of Melbourne. It was a bad look for the yet-to-be publicly accepted new paramilitary force and a black eye for the Abbott government. A trending alternative title for the aborted plan was Operation Ineptitude, although there were lots of others also. Adam Bandt, a Greens member of Parliament (MP) from Melbourne, said “Operation Border Farce came to our city and was just as quickly shown the door.” Independent MP Andrew Wilkie — a former intelligence analyst — said “Joseph Stalin would be proud of Tony Abbott, East Germany’s Stasi (secret police) would be delighted with the Australian Border Force” and even Chile’s former dictator Augusto “Pinochet would be impressed.”

Both ministerial and police heads should roll, but don’t hold your breath. Accountability does not exist in this government’s vocabulary, except for the opposition party and trade unions. Former independent MP Tony Windsor said the Border Force operation was no mistake. Instead, it was part of a “deliberate agenda to create fear in the community.” Reports have emerged of a calculated decision to roll out a national security-related announcement on a weekly basis until the next election. Some suspect the government hopes to goad anxious and resentful Muslims into violent acts so that Labor can be wedged as the party that is soft on terror. Playing party politics with national security is so despicable that one hopes such reports are baseless.

Abbott has a reputation for confusing three-word slogans like “Stop the Boats” and “No Carbon Tax” for policy. This seems like a case of “Win the Votes” and “Spread the Fear.” Unfortunately, it is so clumsy that the result may end up being “One Term Tony.” His captain’s picks — examples of prime ministerial decisions without benefit of Cabinet or party consultations — have been so disastrous that there are mutterings among disgruntled party MPs about the need to pick a new captain.

Would the police have stopped every person in central Melbourne on a random basis and checked their identity? Australians are not required to provide proof of identity (name and address — let alone citizenship and visa details) unless the police have reasonable grounds to believe they have committed, or are about to commit, an offense. How would tourists and students react to evidence of “Welcome to the police state of Victoria”? The region has not forgotten the legacy of White Australia policy; how would they react? Maybe the new force is staffed by officers who have watched too many U.S. cop shows and been infected by their attitude that makes America the police killings capital of the democratic world.

Stopping everyone and anyone was clearly a non-starter. The alternative — correction, the only alternative — is to pick people who look different. That is, to profile passers-by racially. As I flew out of Sydney for Hiroshima last month, there were about 20 people in the security line ahead of me. I was the only non-Caucasian and I was the only one pulled out for a full body scan. It happens to me about every other flight out of Sydney. (By contrast, I have never felt racially profiled by U.S. border control and airport security as I am in my country of citizenship and residence.)

I am not aware of any terrorist attempt in the last two decades by a passenger 65 or older. I am aware of some terrorist incidents by Caucasians. It would be nice if they could get their non-profiling profiles right, but then again security screeners are not the world’s most sophisticated judges of character.

The spontaneous, growing and lasting outrage of people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum confirms how un-Australian such practices are. This is also one of those few issues where the small “l” liberals in the governing Liberal Party had better speak out publicly or else they will never live down the shame of complicity-by-association.

Will Australians really be reduced to a choice between a party in thrall to union thugs and another determined to go down the path to a police state: “You have nothing to fear if you voted right”? What have we done as a country to deserve such a fate?

Ramesh Thakur is director of Australian National University’s Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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