Border control shake-up takes us into dangerous waters


Dark seaImmigration 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 core business for any national government ... The reforms are focused on employing an intelligence-led, mobile, technology-enabled force, operating under a Strategic Border Command, ensuring our assets and resources are deployed to greatest effect.

Morrison intimated that the ABF's functions may expand over time, as the need arises.

There is a disturbing precedent here. Hitler, irritated by the constraints imposed under German civil law and by the Werhmacht's own old-fashioned military codes and conventions of honourable conduct, saw the value of a new security service answerable only to him as leader: the Schutzstaffel (literally Protection Squadron or Defence Corps, more familiarly known as the SS).

The SS had its own training colleges, uniforms, ranks and career structure. It grew from a small paramilitary unit set up by the Nazi party in 1920 to defend its rallies and terrorise political opponents, into a powerful force that served as the Führer's bodyguard, and a force that, fielding almost a million men (both on the front lines and as political police), exerted as much political influence as the Wehrmacht, Germany's regular armed forces.

The SS selected and trained its members according to adherence to Nazi ideology. A main ideology of the SS was to fight against 'sub-humans' and other threats to national security both at home and abroad.

Over time, many SS organisations became de facto government agencies. Legal jurisdiction over the SS and its members was taken away from the civilian courts and given to courts run by the SS itself. These actions effectively put the SS above the law.

Some will think my metaphor far-fetched. But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and I see a lot to be vigilant about in this new agency. At the very least, the lack of checks and balances needs to be scrutinised.

What is left of the ADF's functions and raison d'etre? Effectively, by giving border security to this new super-agency, what is left of the ADF's core functions? Like the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany, will it over time be marginalised, shunted aside as a mere implementing agency? Will those with aspirations to a defence-oriented career gravitate to this sexy new super-agency rather than to the boring old ADF?

The public ground has been well laid for this over many years. Inflammatory ministerial rhetoric, influential entertainment television programs like Border Security: The Front Line, children's literature like Tomorrow When the War Began, have subtly conditioned some Australians to think of ourselves as a nation under all kinds of dark threats from beyond our borders. We have steadily become a more militarised country in ethos, even as we physically become fatter and softer.

Border security paranoia is becoming a national mental disease. Be warned, ADF. Be warned, Australia.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.

Dangerous waters image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Australian Border Force, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

The Australian has worked very hard over the past years under Chris Mitchell to turn protecting our borders against a few refugees into the reason we all exist. As with Ruddock and Howard they are turning us into a police state acting outside all laws. BUT, it is unconstitutional under article 75(5) of the constitution which states that the parliament cannot issue punishments or behave in bad faith.

Marilyn | 09 May 2014  

I along with millions of Australians applaud this iniative.Comparing this sensible approach to protecting our borders with something like Hitlers Germany is absurd.Do you did it for shock value? It is vitally important to keep out criminals ,rapists and thugs and those who have already shown they despise our beautiful country. Dozens of asylum seekers have been in front of the courts and have been charged with criminal acts.What is your response to these people who act in this way? And they are the ones wanting our protection.

kerry | 09 May 2014  

To Kerry: absurdity? "If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." - U.S. President James Madison " All you have to do is to tell the people they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." - Hermann Goering, Nazi leader.

Annoying Orange | 10 May 2014  

The only defence Australia really has is to act in a moral and just way towards the rest of the world. To build an invisible wall around Australia, which is what this Government is doing, is a recipe for disaster. There is hell breaking loose in other countries and do we really think that by building walls we’re making ourselves immune. I can tell you we should be building bridges, not walls. We’re putting ourselves in the moral position where we are literally inviting war and conflict at a future date.

Lydia | 10 May 2014  

This is a timely reminder of another significant step that this nation is taking on the way to becoming an authoritarian state where the executive rules without the oversight of the courts and the parliament is simply a rubber stamp for the executive. At the moment, it's directed at 'the other', but in time it will directed at internal dissidents. Get ready for our own 'disappeared'. Be alert, Australia, and be alarmed.

Ginger Meggs | 10 May 2014  

Comparing the emergent ABF to the SS? Now who is the paranoid one?

Jacque | 10 May 2014  

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector. Plato

Plato | 10 May 2014  

Kerry, while we obsess about a few refugees and waste billions keeping them from landing, we have a shore and water ""border"" of 60,000 kl,. which means 90% of our ""border"" will be utterly available for every criminal on the planet to land on unnoticed.

Marilyn | 10 May 2014  

I agree wholeheartedly! The Hitler metaphor is very appropriate. I sincerely hope that the rabble rousing and the hysteria that Hitler's youth groups used so effectively doesn't become a feature of our society. I worry for my grandchildren!

Jim Slingsby | 10 May 2014  

The parallels are there to see. The seldom mentioned fact of the Nazis rise to power in 1940s Germany is that it was all legal. The last multiparty election held in Germany on March 5th 1933 returned the Nazi party with 44% of the vote. The first concentration camp at Dachau opened on March 22nd. The following day an enabling act was passed, allowing Hitler to rule by decree, Gestz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich, literally "The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation". And so the frog slowly boils. The American experience need not be the Australian. Anyone who has travelled to the US recently has met 'Homeland Security' with the fish-eye cameras and the fingerprinting. My last visit was before the advent of TSA but my treatment at every point was nonetheless demeaning, intrusive and made me extremely uncomfortable, and I was a well-credentialed tourist. The culture of suspicion does NOT become us. Nor does the waste of our finite resources.

David Brannigan | 10 May 2014  

Marilyn, Section 75(v) refers to the jurisdiction of the High Court in cases of a writ of Mandamus.How does this reinforce the comments in your initial email? Section 51 of the Constitution provides that the Parliament has the power to make laws with respect to the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth and of the States, and the control of the forces to execute and maintain the laws of the Commonwealth; quarantine; fisheries in Australian waters beyond territorial limits; naturalisation and aliens; immigration and emigration; the influx of criminals; external Affairs; and, the relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific. Seems to me that the ABF and indeed the current government's stance on Border Protection is consistent with its obligations under the Constitution.

Jacque | 10 May 2014  

Be very careful of the ADF and the people have to stay on top of this so it don't go the way of the SS and the way of our goverment in the USA.

Donald Stonebrink | 11 May 2014  

It seems to me like a state terrorism what the liberal party wants to set up in Australia. A criminalised corrupt government.

Roberto | 11 May 2014  

Thank you for this article Tony Kevin. In policy, practice and values, Australia has moved towards the dystopian scenario you articulate under the Abbott government. Scott Morrison should now be see as Minister for Dys-Information now as he proceeds with dangerous and diplomatically provocative policies against Indonesia. In terms of policy, the Manus Island and Nauru Detention Centres flout international conventions be they the U.N Convention on Refugees or the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In terms of values, Nick Feik in yesterday's edition of ' The Saturday Paper' has an intriguing and disturbing take on Tony Abbott. The highly ambitious Scott Morrison is the political heir to John Howard 's Tampa stance in 2001, and to the Cronulla riots in 2007. Because of its political stance to refugees arriving by boat by all governments, Australia has been changed in the past 15 years, and not for the better.

Michael | 11 May 2014  

I'd be interested to know why Kerry and Jacqui believe the SS analogy is absurd/paranoid. If they are looking at the SS in, say, the late 1930s - maybe. But if they were to look at its origins, they might think differently. A para military force reporting to Scott Morrison - scary!

Kevin Bradley | 11 May 2014  

This article is from a former Australian ambassador. If he is finding similarities to the early process by which Nazism took total control in Germany he will not be doing it lightly. He is making valid comaprisons to the early processes, not to the later extremes of Nazism. The comparisons are valid and very concerning. I didn't realise this until this article. We are demonising refugees, and stoking fear against them. This will go through because Australians have never expereinced excessive government control of their freedoms. What can be instigated against these refugees can be expanded and the same technique used against others. This is similar to what happened in the US after 9/11 with the Patriot Act wherein numerous historic freedoms were trashed. Using fear and demonisiing has been often used to consolidate power and lessen free dissent. Be warned, indeed.

Rod Lloyd | 11 May 2014  

This has grave implications for civil liberties. We will not have the rights and freedoms in the future if - When this comes in

MemKate | 11 May 2014  

Look to Newman's Qld for the developing template for Morrison's Volks-Police.

Ian Carter | 11 May 2014  

To Kerry and the other sceptics: listen to this interview about a landholder being terrorised by a helicopter at midnight on her property in Qld and tell me there's not something inherently rotten in the halls of parliament across the country - here's the link -

tony | 11 May 2014  

No comment, I could answer but then I'd have to shoot you, as it could endanger on-going operations and jeopardize Australia's national interest, Sorry : )

A Source | 12 May 2014  

The next question is where there Church/churches will stand on this matter. Will they stand up and be counted, whatever the cost, or will they negotiate an accommodation with such a state? There are precedents for both options.

Ginger Meggs | 12 May 2014  

SS parallels aside, there is much to be concerned about in Minister Morrison's proposal. Surely one of the functions of our immigration adminstration is to faciliate access to Australia for tourists, students, family members, etc? Surely Immigration benefits from integration with the Public Service generally, through movement of staff at all levels, inter-Departmental synergies, sharing in ethos, etc. Surely we want our customs and immigration staff to work within main-stream Australian cultural mores, as well as the letter and spirit of the law, both domestic and international. As the para-military metaphor would have it, the proposed agency does not seem designed to advance on any of these fronts. We should use the money for better purposes.

Denis Fitzgerald | 13 May 2014  

With this Government, I fear for my children (and my grandchildren if I my children are ever lucky enough to afford them). The most frightening aspect of this article, are the voices in dissent. Why do you not question the twisted, bitter and narrow-minded rhetoric you have been spun?

AC | 13 May 2014  

I just listened to the Alan Jones interview mentioned in Tony's 11-May response above: Please, everyone, listen to it. I didn't realise that Jones did things like this. It is hard to believe that what he describes can happen in Australia. It is truly frightening. He finishes by quoting Thomas Moore "Silence betokens consent."

Frank | 13 May 2014  

Good comment, Tony. However, do you have to go back to the discredited Nazis for a comparison? Only old people like me and you remember the brown shirts. There are more shadowy contemporary organisations that have become a state- within-a-state.

Wolfgang Mueller | 13 May 2014  

Lest Kerry's charge that asylum seekers end up in front of the courts goes unchallenged, where is your evidence, Kerry? The last I heard, asylum seekers who had been released into the community were UNDER-represented in the courts. See

ErikH | 13 May 2014  

Another parallel with the Nazi regime that has concerned me greatly has been Abbott's use of the techniques of Joseph Goebbles, Hitler's Minister for Propaganda - just keep lying and you'll make people believe you. Abbott knows that under our international obligations asylum seekers are not doing anything illegal but he has continued to use the word in speaking of them, in season and out, a relentless barrage that Goebbels would have approved admiringly. I recently received a disgusting letter from his department consisting of nine paragraphs. The word 'illegal' appeared in seven of them. It felt like a sustained insult to my intelligence. It was as if the writer could by reiteration bully me into admitting that black was white. The other frightening aspect of his regime is the way information on issues crucial to our national behaviour - at sea, in the detention centres - is being so wilfully kept from the Australian people. As well, the instances publicly touted a couple of years ago of Abbott's resorting to violence in university politics make fears of authoritarianism, of a developing totalitarianism, on his watch feel not far fetched. His current charm offensive has become simply a different sort of propaganda.

Joe Castley | 13 May 2014  

It's interesting to note that even Chris Berg, a thinking conservative, writes against this crazy development. See

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2014  

I have just finished reading Hans Fallada's book Every Man Dies Alone - about the German resistance to the Nazis. It continually made me feel very uneasy about our current immigration policies. Now, when I read of Scott Morrison's proposed "super-agency" I am filled with horror. How low can we go??.

Patricia | 13 May 2014  

how is this government able to not inform the public exactly what is happening in our border protection area? we need to know the truth, not the spin.

Barbara Malcolm | 13 May 2014  

Democracy is always something to be aspired to, rather than something which has been achieved once and for all and which therefore can safely be taken for granted. Tony Kevin offers a timely reminder that democracy is fragile and that we should feel unease when a political leader sets up a potentially very powerful national body free to act outside democratic checks and balances. His comparison of he new Australian Border Force with the SS may seem extreme but it would be foolish to disregard it.

Anna | 13 May 2014  

Thank you Tony for this article. My real concern is for those refugees who are trying to find asylum. Like wise will the navy and military personnel who carry out the instructions of the Minister be subject to the same legal ramifications as those who were charged under the judgement at Nuremberg.

John W H Smith | 13 May 2014  

The sad thing is if you rolled the Abbott government tomorrow and replaced it with a Labor one, Labor would do nothing to dismantle the Morrison tyranny.

Michael Godfrey | 13 May 2014  

Thanks to ES readers for all these generally supportive letters. I am working now on a longer, more considered critique of the proposed ABF super-agency , exploring how discordant it is with mainstream Australian defence force and administrative values and practice. Despite the horror budget, I urge others to write to your MPs about it. I have alerted Mr Shorten's military affairs adviser to the importance of this issue, drawing his attention to my article and Bruce Haigh's article in The Guardian. I look forward to Labor's and Greens criticisms of the proposal. Morrison's full text is now up as PDF file. Google 'Scott Morrison Lowy speech 9 May".

Tony Kevin | 14 May 2014  

I have welcomed Tony's articles , they provide an important contribution to our understanding of complex international affairs issues and particularly in the current discussions on asylum seekers / refugees support . I am disturbed that our Governments policies and behaviour in the area of " Border Protection " have been likened to the development of the SS in Nazi Germany . While , I like many others believe we can do better in our responses to the Asylum Seeker issues , I think comparing the Government policies to the SS is extreme and impacts on the credibility of all those trying to make some difference . Looking forward to Tony's more detailed analysis of the new Border Protection " super agency " .

Leon Daphne | 14 May 2014  

To Leon Daphne. A more significate detailed analysis; "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Annoying Orange | 14 May 2014  

I recommend Chris Berg's excellent piece (now read - see URL in letters) and in a different vein, First Dog on the Moon in The Guardian. I'm awaiting a considered Labor reaction. I hope Labor recognises the importance of the Coalition's"border protection fetish" (Berg) which is truly dangerous. I am continuing to research this and urge others to do the same. Tyranny sneaks in by the back door.

Tony kevin | 15 May 2014  

People who deny the validity of Tony Kevin's analogy, or term it 'absurd', are ignoring the stark and frightening similarities between 1930 political process in Germany and Australia today. Demonise a minority group, retell a lie ad nausea until it becomes folk lore, use a tame media to reinforce the myths, refuse information to the public as to ['on-water'] consequences of your actions etc. --- a formula to do whatever you like to the minority. The Manus and Nauru gulags are in a horrible tradition, and the notion of a "Border Force SS" answerable only to Morrison is certainly grounds for deep concern. An excellent article Tony thank you

leighj | 15 May 2014  

No Commonwealth agency may be established outside Constitutional controls. High Court writs will always run against such agencies, and their employees, under Chapter III of the Constitution. Furthermore, any attempt to bring the ABF outside the ordinary criminal and civil law would require an Act of Parliament, and that would be very difficult to justify, indeed. The SS did not have popular legislative foundation. The ABF will.

Robert | 16 May 2014  

Robert says 'No Commonwealth agency may be established outside Constitutional controls. High Court writs will always run against such agencies... any attempt to bring the ABF outside the ordinary criminal and civil law would require an Act of Parliament, and that would be very difficult to justify, indeed'. Have you forgotten the detention of Cornelia Rau, Robert? And the other person, whose name escapes me, unlawfully deported to the Philippines? And, more recently, the additional un-named passengers added to the 'turned back' boat? Those are just the ones we know of. And that ASIO still has the power to 'disappear' people and to suppress revelation that they have been 'disappeared'. How does one gather evidence to challenge such 'disappearances' in the Courts when everything is kept conveniently under wraps?

Name | 16 May 2014  

I felt one benefit of the Morrison paramilitary "borfer defence" proposal is perhaps greater integration of SOME services. In fact I've long promoted a real national coatguard service, as per web-page: But the direct reporting to a minister is indeed dangerous - far wiser would be a new (coastguard) branch of the ADF to cover all these functions - but with real legality, responsibility and balances.

Geoff D Bolton | 16 May 2014  

I agree with you. Thanks for this well-written article. I wish it could get wider coverage.

Jenny Rae | 19 May 2014  

For goodness sake! The other day a friend of.mine compared Tony Abbott to Hitler and the "Stop the boats" policy and detention centres to the Holocaust. What this article does is show a disturbing misrepresentation between a horror that cost 50 million lives (twice the current population of Australia), the shocking genocide of the Jewish nation and a policy imvolvimg some of tje best brains Tony, you should know better. You show scant respect for history and less fot the survovors Nothing done in Aistralia cam compare with the inhumanity of the SS. My father new it wrll as a WWII para who helped the survibors at Dachau the smell was still in his nostrils the day he died.

Karl H Cameron-Jacksony | 19 May 2014  

For more evidence of the creeping abuse of law see this recent article by George Williams. ASIO can now lawfully cause a non-citizen to be detained indefinitely without disclosing the reason; it's only a small step to the situation where it could do the same with citizens.

Ginger Meggs | 20 May 2014  

Congratulations - your entire article is a paean to Mr Godwin. Check out his Law - which you brought to fruition from the outset!

Andrew | 15 July 2015  

As ABF is clearly modeled on Homeland Security, it may be of interest to note that the US Congress has voted to radically wind back data-mining. Also the current head of Homeland Security has made some very curious decisions concerning repatriation of 911 suspects.

Jeff | 31 August 2015  

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