Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Operation Fortitude was a mirage - but it still matters

The whole Operation Fortitude debacle happened so quickly that it was over before we really knew anything solid. The Australian Border Force released a statement saying they would be stopping "anyone they crossed paths with." The internet went into conniptions, and organised a protest at Flinders Street Station, where there would be an Operation Fortitude press conference. Border Force issued another press release, saying they wouldn't be stopping people on the streets, but the protest went ahead anyway. Due to the massive public outcry, the press conference and then the operation itself were both cancelled. It all happened in the space of a few hours, and was immediately hailed as a big victory for the power of the people, to organise on social media and to halt the ABF in its tracks - each event, one after the other in rapid succession, helped craft a sort of linear, domino-like narrative.

As the dust settled, and more details came out, it became clear that this timeline was at best simplistic. Victoria Police and Border Force both clarified that at no point were random visa checks ever going to be conducted; Border Force was to play a small role, checking visas when VicPol referred someone to them. What was said in the initial press release was simply untrue.

This of course made many on the right say that the latte-sipping lefty Twitterati had gotten into a lather over nothing, and had shut down an operation that was really quite routine. Even a lot of those in the centre and on the left seem to have conceded the narrative - I've seen many downplaying its significance. Some have effectively been saying "Okay, this time it was nothing, but it's still great to see we can organise something so effective so quickly." Things to that effect. But I don't think we should be so quick to dismiss what happened here.

The facts, as I see them, are as follows. Operation Fortitude was to be a fairly standard law enforcement operation. They're announced all the time but are rarely noticed by most people - a slightly heightened police presence in a particular area, a particular emphasis on the flavour of the week (drugs, speed, drink driving, whatever), and perhaps a mild inconvenience if you get delayed by the breathalyzer queue on the way home. Border Force was to play a small background role, checking the visas of people VicPol referred to them, as they have done many times before.

A few people at Border Force (we will never really know who) decided to put out a press release making it seem like they would be doing a lot more than they were - an attempt to further the tough image they have tried so very hard to cultivate.

The public, fully aware of what has come before, took this at face value. None of us would really be that surprised if the Abbott government's pet national security project graduated from cosplaying as the Gestapo to actually demanding papers like the Gestapo. So when Border Force said this was exactly what they were going to do, people believed them and decided to stop it.

Border Force, seeing the PR disaster bearing down on them, freaked out. VicPol, apparently quite blindsided by Border Force's posturing, cancelled the whole thing. Roll credits.

It's tempting to say "Twitter got it wrong" and leave it at that. Border Force were never going to be hanging around randomly checking the visas of people who look foreign, so many seem to think that the outcry accomplished nothing - it stopped something that was never going to happen. And of course, ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg has in his own way been encouraging this interpretation by trying to characterise it as a simple misunderstanding, initially claiming the media misinterpreted the press release, and eventually saying that it was "clumsily worded" and "shouldn't have been worded that way."

But let's be clear - there was no clumsiness here. This was not an accident, the lie was precisely the point. Border Force were never going to be stopping people on the streets - but they wanted the public to believe they were. They were deliberately evoking that image, in order to enhance their image of tough, military men, protecting genuine (read: white) Aussies from the tide of foreigners threatening to take our jerbs.

Border Force is a quasi-military organisation, essentially Customs on steroids, that serves no purpose but to get the government re-elected. Customs and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (as it was known under Labor) both did a perfectly fine job beforehand, but the "Normal public servants doing their job competently" imagery didn't really work too well for Abbott and co. A government who campaigned in no small part on the basis of xenophobia, and whose only achievement since gaining office (if you can call it an achievement) is having Stopped The Boats, needed something more.

So DIAC gets renamed the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and it all gets brought under a new body - the Australian Border Force (honk). They have a strong sounding name, they have big black uniforms with shiny medals on them, they carry weapons, they have the right to detain people, to surveil them, to access your metadata...but right now they don't really do anything much of value that Customs and DIAC didn't do. In fact, in many ways they do less - there's much less focus on the kinds of citizenship, multiculturalism and integration stuff that they used to do.

Border Force only exist for PR reasons. They exist because the Coalition find it electorally useful to whip up fear and make it look like they're the only ones protecting you from the danger. They are a manifestation of the rhetoric that brought the Coalition into office, and as the polls have gotten worse and their grip has become more tenuous, that rhetoric has ramped up.

Border Force's characterisation of Operation Fortitude was designed to be a continuation of that rhetoric. It was designed to be a PR win for the government, because based on what's happened so far, they have reason to believe the people of Australia love this stuff. They think it's a winner, and as long as it keeps working, they'll keep doing it.

The people involved certainly see these stunts for what they are. The Victorian Government criticised Border Force's "unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation" of VicPol's operation. The Community and Public Sector Union, which serves Border Force staff (among others), also made a statement calling on the government to "stop cynically exploiting the work of the Australian Border Force for its own political ends." Operation Fortitude and everything else Border Force does is a political exercise - it's a stunt to push people around and win votes. And if the public had reacted well to the idea of Border Force stopping people in the streets and demanding to see their visas - how long do you think it would be before they actually did it? These kind of stunts may serve primarily to make the government look tough, but they have real-world consequences for the people they harass.

That's why this was important. Every time this kind of stunt works, the government is emboldened. They've already enacted a lot of worryingly totalitarian legislation, because they (and Labor) think that the people of Australia either want it or don't care enough to do anything about it. In shutting Operation Fortitude down, we showed them that this is not the case - that enough is enough.

There is of course a long way to go - on national security and asylum seekers, Labor and the Coalition are bipartisanly awful - and we really have decades of policy to wind back. But let's recognise this moment for what it is - a genuine start.

A government with such a cavalier attitude to due process and the rule of law only understands one thing - voters saying "no." So saying "no", even to a mirage, matters.

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