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Border control shake-up takes us into dangerous waters

  • 13 May 2014

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison today announced a major shake-up in Australian border security administration. Operation Sovereign Borders is effectively to become merged into a powerful new permanent 'super-agency'.

In the course of the coming year, present OSB functions will have been absorbed into an even more powerful and permanent Australian Border Force (I'll use an as-yet unofficial acronym, ABF). This ABF will by July 2015 have assumed all the functions and powers of the Australian Immigration and Border Protection Department, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the Australian Quarantine Service, and Operation Sovereign Borders.

It will apparently sit outside both the public service and ADF chains of commands and laws and protocols of conduct. It will report to a 'commissioner' who will report to the Minister for Immigration. It will have its own ranks, promotion and command structure, and its own training college. It will operate according to a 'border protection above all else' ideology that was spelt out frankly by Morrison in The Australian today.

This new intelligence-based super-agency 'will have responsibility for staff at air and sea borders as well as those involved in investigations, compliance and enforcement'. It will manage immigration detention and removals. It will include airport and maritime officers, investigators and those responsible for tracking down illegal goods. An ABF college 'will also be established to deliver the professional, technical and operational training that border force officers will need in the border environment of the future'.

Already, The Australian's correspondence columns are filled with letters applauding Morrison's initiative: here at last is the strong leadership Australia was looking for. There are almost no contrary voices.

But Morrison is taking Australia into very dangerous waters, by setting up a powerful new paramilitary force with its own ideology, training and rank structure, answerable only to an immigration minister, and apparently with no legal or constitutional checks and balances outside itself.

The ADF is bound by civil and military law, the Geneva Conventions, international maritime law, and its own protocols of honourable conduct. The public service is bound by civil and administrative law, by what is left of the Westminster conventions, by parliamentary and external audit processes. What will constrain the ABF? We know from OSB's conduct that it is prepared to break Australian and international laws, ride roughshod over diplomatic relationships, shrug off major human rights violations, and indemnify its staff against legal sanctions.

Morrison wrote:

Like national defence, protecting Australia's borders should be