When then opposition leader, Tony Abbott announced his new ‘Border Protection’ asylum-seeker and refugee policy in July 2013, it seemed at first as if it were a bad joke: a grotesque parody of our nation’s rights and responsibilities as much as an absurd over-reach to a politically sensitive but minor issue: the arrival of sea-borne refugees on our shores. The name did not help. The term ‘border protection’ itself is grandiose and deceptive. It misleads by implying that our borders are threatened by asylum seekers and refugees. Typically from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan our asylum seekers and refugees flee by boat from the Taliban, from civil wars and dangers we can barely guess at. Many of these are women and children. Boat arrivals represent a tiny fraction of those who arrive via our very porous borders. On average 1000 per year come by sea. Contrast this with 150,000 arriving annually by air. Border protection, like ‘turn back the boats’ is a costly political stunt which exploits ignorance and xenophobia for narrow political advantage. Ultimately it injures Australia’s international reputation, betrays our common humanity and consumes billions of dollars which could and should be better spent in education and other real priorities.
In 2013 Australians were promised that a ‘three-star commander’ would be put in charge of a military-led border protection campaign. It was a perplexing term to most of us. The US Army ranks generals with stars; perhaps, we wondered, this might be a new, local variant. It wasn’t. Australian forces use stars differently. But it worked, to some degree, as an attention-seeking attempt to bestow legitimacy and status. It sounded impressive if somewhat forced. The times demanded no less: Abbott proceeded to talk everything else up. Most notably he declared the waves of asylum-seekers arriving by boat to be a ”national emergency”, a term he has subsequently stretched to fit the economy and the ISIS and other jihadists’ threat. A three star commander, it was implied, surely would have the rank and the nous to fix the problem. And the power. As time would tell, however, this pseudo-military footing permitted the government to avoid accountability in “Operation Sovereign Borders”. Key questions as to what was happening were met with stony silence. Answers could not be provided to ‘operational matters.’
Operation Sovereign borders would not only boast a three star commander, it was to be a hamburger with the lot. Touting a streamlined efficiency that Liberal leaders love to pretend characterises their ‘business-like’ approach to government, Abbott promised that his ”Operation Sovereign Borders” would combine 12 agencies involved in ‘border protection under one command’, a military supremo to be recommended by Chief of Defence, General David Hurley yet not answerable to him. Commander kangaroo would instead report directly to no less an exalted entity than the immigration minister. But no-one need be told the substance of that reporting. It was left to speculation as to how this secretive streamlined unity would be achieved or how well it would work. Also left unsaid was that Hurley did not endorse the proposal. Nor was he consulted.
The irregular power structure was commended to the electorate as ‘a unified chain of command’. Again, anyone would think we were at war so greatly was the package larded with pseudo-military terms and assumptions. Anyone might have wondered at the proposal’s implicit advocacy of a military solution to a complex issue. When all else fails, fall back on brute force. Was this, somehow, the best our little nation could come up with? Some of us wondered whether the next step would be the proclamation of martial law.
For many the first reaction was disbelief. Surely no-one would take this Gilbertian dictatorship seriously. Surely anyone could foresee a problem with the chain of authority and its opaque operational secrecy. Surely the three stars would quickly lose their shine as commander kangaroo was laughed out of the water, or lost at sea. Surely we would come to our senses and remember our legal and moral obligation to those forced to seek asylum. Sadly, this was not to be. Quite the contrary: instead appear increasing signs of a widespread belief that “Operation Sovereign Borders” is ‘working’, as a Labor politician put it this week, (before others in the party remonstrated). The same comment by a journalist from the Guardian newspaper on Q&A a few days ago drew a round of applause. it was a chilling illustration of the power of propaganda.
Sadly, ‘border protection’ appears now to be embedded in Australian government policy and practice. It has seeped into our collective unconscious, that part of the national psyche too fearful to think straight. It is found in that unreasoned acceptance of rebranded, re-packaged cruelty, hostility and indifference to others in danger and distress that finds expression in ‘turn back the boats’, Abbott’s endlessly repeated slogan. And immigration minister Scott Morrison acts as if he is accountable to no-one, including the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs as evidenced in his boorish, bullying behaviour whilst giving evidence to The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Certainly he has been able to spend billions, at a time of budget emergency.
Border protection dovetails neatly with the heightened paranoia recently invoked by the Abbott government in which it is held that we are at grave risk of attack from ‘those who hate our way of life’. Ostensibly to protect ourselves from terrorists, we accepted new liberties with language and have agreed to new laws which effectively permit the state to increase its surveillance and power over its citizens. The theatre of national security has also scored political popularity points for a poorly polling government into the bargain. A poll published in The Age today indicated a disturbing doubling of those Australians who felt their government could be trusted.
Border protection rears its ugly head in what is fondly misnamed our national conversation, a conversation which is so dominated by the agenda of vested interests and media that it is neither national nor a conversation. As Julian Burnside observes in his foreword to Marc Isaacs, The Undesirables, the phrase is misleading. For despite the newspeak, and despite the Abbott government’s militaristic procedures and posturing, the fact is that asylum seekers have a right to come to Australia. It is their human right. Australia is, of course, a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, a declaration our nation helped to create.
Australia has an obligation under international law to admit asylum seekers. Instead, for narrow political gain, our leaders have persuaded us to pretend we are at war with them. It is time we completely threw out this case. it is untenable. it is mutually destructive. It does not become us. It does not meet our commitments to human rights. It denies our humanity. And it will break our budget. We do not have the resources to fight a war on asylum seekers on the water and a war on jihadists in the Iraqi desert. In the interests of humanity and our dwindling material resources, it is high time we stopped the Border Protection nonsense. Operation Sovereign Borders should be scrapped immediately. Scrap the language of illegals, border protection and all the associated newspeak which condones cruelty and promotes hatred. Send the three star Commander back into the navy. Billions of dollars could then be diverted into an investment in education. Australians could be helped to rediscover their true role in a world that is likely to have more rather than fewer asylum seekers and refugees. We could lead the world by demonstrating our enlightened understanding and natural compassion in taking in those who seek refuge here. And in the process, perhaps, we could rediscover what it means to be human in a world of growing hostility, division and indifference.