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Border Force is the contrivance of a knot of ambitious bureaucrats whose aim is to militarise Immigration. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside Border Force’s power

Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg (left), Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (centre) and PM Tony Abbott.
Credit: AAP

He’s known as “The Pez” in Canberra circles, and his rise has been inexorable. At least, that’s what they say; and origin stories are important in the capital. Mike Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was a graduate employee in the Department of Defence in the early ’90s when his wife was tapped for an advisory position with then foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans. Wanting to start a family, she declined, but her husband got the gig. From there he became Kim Beazley’s deputy chief of staff. “The rest is history,” a source says. “He rose and rose and rose. And he always loved a uniform. Now he’s got one.”

Today, the Pez is head of one of the most controversial departments in the country. Its policies have been condemned by the United Nations, questioned by its own Moss report and now, with the recent release of a senate inquiry, its Nauru camps have been deemed unsuitable for children. All of this was foreseen. But most of those who gave warnings are gone. The department has undergone a massive flight of executives. If you work there, you don’t call Pezzullo Pez. Or Mike. Not anymore. “This used to be a first name organisation,” a source says. “The secretary would be called Andrew or Martin. Now it’s ‘Mr Secretary’ or ‘Secretary Pezzullo’, which is an Americanisation. All of the staff, right down to the lowest levels, have a fear of getting this wrong.”

For decades, before it got tangled with Hansonism and its proxies, Australia’s immigration policy was largely uncontroversial. It was also successful. Successful in that it bore up refugees – the children of immigrants were beginning to rank more highly on education attainment and income than their counterparts. Unlike much of Europe, which distributed visas as a claim to cheap labour, Australia accepted refugees as future Australians. We welcomed husbands, wives and children. Our immigration policy understood that integration wouldn’t work without the individual’s family.

Mandatory detention began under Keating, and was implemented as a form of deterrence. On that matter, nothing has changed. Over decades, we have only perfected the logic. “Mike was a strong proponent of tow-backs, even under Labor,” a source says. “He would argue that one good tow-back would send a strong message. And the Malaysia transfer scheme, well that was a virtual tow-back. Within 24 hours of being on Christmas Island you’ll be on your way. It was always about deterrence.”

But deterrence is not enough. The policy never contended with what would happen to the people whose treatment was the essence of that deterrence. “When Labor reopened Manus and Nauru there was never confidence that it was a long-term solution for the challenge of asylum seekers and people smugglers. There was never any confidence that these places could offer a safe, long-term option for asylum seekers, let alone any found to have claims recognised under the Refugee Convention and released into the local community as refugees. In fact, there were warnings that it would end badly. In deaths, even,” a senior source said.

“Several years later, these places are still running, still lurching from one human disaster to another. They’re torture camps now, and I don’t think any of the leadership team in the new Immigration Department care one bit. And the stories getting out – the newspaper articles and emails and letters – well, the more the stories get out about how awful it is, from the government’s perspective, the more it serves as a deterrent. That’s kind of the point.”

Militarisation of the department

What has changed, rapidly and profoundly, is the raison d’être of the Immigration Department. Its DNA has been forsaken. First is its abandonment of historical focus – that of the settlement and integration of refugees, a focus that has happily distinguished Australia from much of the world. “There was a range of things the department once did – for example, Harmony Day, humanitarian settlement, multiculturalism,” a source says. “All these are stripped from Immigration now. Broadly, there has been very little promotion of multicultural policy by this government. All that ‘soft side’ of the shop was moved under the machinery of government changes to other departments. It once was that skilled migration, tourism, student visas, citizenship, multicultural policy – that was the bread and butter of the department.”

Mike Pezzullo – Mr Secretary – oversees a dramatically militarised department, one that functions with increasing secrecy. There is now a command and control system; its senior bureaucrats wear military tunics. Long-term public servants, asked to exchange policy for army salutes, have left. About a quarter of senior executives are gone. Remaining immigration staff are now the beta tribe to the big dogs of Border Force, creating internecine angst, while the media team field daily questions about abuse exercised in their name.

“They’ve cut down on the sharing of information,” a source says. “A lot. And there are now many physically quarantined places in the building at Belconnen. There used to be just one area that if someone who wasn’t authorised to be there – like, they were employed by the department but were visiting that particular work station – then people would call out ‘Stranger on the floor’ and that was a sign to stop talking and clear your desk of anything sensitive. Well, now there are many such areas.” 

Back during the 2010 election, policy briefs were written for the new government – whoever it might be. The brief from Immigration included the suggestion that Customs be amalgamated into the department. The deputy secretary, Bob Correll, was the strongest advocate for a pseudo-militarisation of the department’s functions, and while the advice was dropped, Correll would ensure it became reality when he became Scott Morrison’s chief of staff in 2013. Which is also when executives began leaving the department – the thought of implementing Correll’s ideology was unthinkable.

At the start of the year, the Australian Border Force Act gave birth to Australia’s newest security agency. The prime minister would officially launch it in July. The ABF was effectively a melding of Customs and Immigration officers, reconceived with considerably more power. ABF officers can carry arms, conduct surveillance and detain people. With these powers, the ABF patrols our seas, airports and detention centres.

The department was barely recognisable, and by the time the ABF was launched not one deputy secretary from two years earlier was still there. “Immigration didn’t bring Customs into its bosom,” a senior source tells me.  “Customs absorbed Immigration into its bowel.”

The notorious media release

The ABF media release went out just after 10am last Friday. It was written by an inexperienced media officer and beneath the ultimate guidance of a new communications executive recruited from the Department of Defence. Armed ABF officers, it said, would be patrolling Melbourne’s CBD and stopping “any individual we cross paths with”. It went on: “You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa.”

Despite the inexperience of its author, the draft release managed to pass untouched through a slalom course of approval. Once published, the unhinging began. 

The intention of the release was clear, even if its provenance wasn’t, and it was received incredulously by the public. A sort of giddy disgust fomented, one that would eventually spill onto Melbourne’s streets.

The ABF became swamped with criticism or requests for clarification, while public relations teams for myriad organisations and political offices privately sought their own explanations. Behind the scenes, a mad spaghetti junction was formed by the exchange of hundreds of emails. The desperation was understandable – a reasonable interpretation of the ABF’s own statement was that it was poised to conduct a spectacularly invasive and impractical operation, one at odds with the deepest virtues of our democracy. Later, the ABF would blame the controversy on the “mischaracterisation” of the release by the media, but as a source close to the operation told me: “[The statement] was entirely unambiguous. In fact, it was one of the plainer government media releases you’ll see.”

Operation Fortitude

Operation Fortitude was intended as a larger-than-usual presence of law enforcement on Melbourne’s public transport – as much public relations as preventive policing – with the stated goal of helping “commuter safety”. The ABF would play a minor role. For almost as long as we have had a visa system, we have had police working with Customs officers to ensure its integrity. “Compliance staff quietly waiting in their cars, or in the background somewhere,” a source familiar with the operation tells me, “waiting for police to speak, to come to them with, say, a driver’s licence or some form of ID which the compliance guys would key into their laptops and bring up information, such as whether they were on a visa, what type, what work restrictions, if any, and so forth.”

The ABF officers would have had a peripheral role – waiting until information from police was received – and secondary to the passive policing of transport hubs.

How Fortitude collapsed

Just before 1pm, the ABF released a statement it hoped would douse the fire. “To be clear,” it read, “the ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets … The ABF does not target on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.” It didn’t help. There was now the dissonance between “commuter safety”, “stopping anyone” and the latest contradictory assurance. The words “To be clear” stubbornly suggested public misinterpretation, or was a weird confession of ambiguity where none existed. Meanwhile, the protest was bubbling. It was being swiftly organised online, and would soon transform onto the streets. But the public would be protesting a mirage.

From about 1.30pm, protesters began swarming Flinders Street Station’s entrance and its surrounding streets. They scrawled slogans on the footpaths in chalk; waved placards bearing crossed-out swastikas. They were mostly young, all appalled, and chanting “Fuck off Border Force”. The major streets ground to a halt. Trams and cars were blocked. There was gridlock in the city. By 2pm, the crowd was swollen and sincere in its belief that it was rejecting a reformation of Nazism.

There was low pleasure in watching the farce. It was operatic, and unfurled at pace. It had it all. There were “clarifications” that aided confusion. There were steel-jawed, military-garbed men blaming kids. There was the sheer speed of the collapse – only a handful of hours joined the declaration of an operation with its cancellation. And at the epicentre there was a young media officer incapable of grasping the size of her error and the complicated delirium it inspired. The whole day was like a realisation of Kessler syndrome – the hypothetical chain reaction that comes from one bit of space junk smashing into a satellite and generating its own catastrophic spray of debris. The result is exponentially increasing damage, and an orbit unfit for exploration.

There’s sufficient debris in the orbit now to retard analysis. The narrative is already well established – that the ABF actually intended to deploy themselves as illiberally as promised by the original media release, and that the left heroically repelled them. It’s a story widely told, from Bill Shorten to the Greens to human rights commissioner Tim Wilson. All have worked from the assumption that the original press release was accurate, and not the accidental confection of a witless comms officer. Which is what it was.

The protesters had forgotten Hanlon’s razor, which warns against attributing “conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity”. It is hard to retreat from a line of noble defiance. It’s infinitely more gratifying than the recognition you were picketing a fiction.

It might appear astonishing that such a press release could pass, but that suspicion assumes an unrelenting rigour in the system. The weakest link in this chain is not the youngest person, but the most bored or distracted. And that could be just about anyone. The writing of these things is a loveless exercise in mild propaganda. Their authors quickly inherit the cynicism of the political masters that dictate them. And upstairs, those masters are busy fretting and plotting. Quality control demands that each of them care equally about it, but that’s almost impossible.

The protesters lacked perspective, but they weren’t wrong to be alarmed by the release. The ABF’s stated intention was clear – until they told us it wasn’t. And the official response to the protests was speckled with cowardice and confusion. The ABF commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg, said: “Taken into context, it makes absolute, perfect, legitimate sense. But read through the layperson’s eyes – which I absolutely openly acknowledge – it’s clumsily worded and it’s been misconstrued and it shouldn’t have been worded that way.”

We have now militarised our Immigration Department, but one of its leaders couldn’t plainly confront the enemy of internal incompetence. “That he blamed a low-level staffer is the height of disloyalty,” a senior source told me. “He should be man enough to take responsibility. He hasn’t done that.”

Senior public servants foresaw this bungle, as they warned years ago about the dangers of the government’s immigration policies. And both the scepticism and incompetence is the result of a profoundly reimagined Immigration Department.

‘Inanimate things’

Long ago our policies peeled away from sobriety and international law, and became the steel balls of a perpetual motion machine. Collectively we have pretended that intelligent policy is one that reinforces the previous mob’s brutality. Together we’ve agreed to pretend that immigration has little to do with our economy, or the barbarism of conflicts that we’ve already recognised by dispatching troops. It is hard to reconcile the fact that Australians have died trying to quell tyrannies that have created an exodus we’ve placed in distant and squalid camps.

It’s unlikely to change. “I don’t think Mike Pezzullo lets human consequence get in the way,” my source tells me. “He doesn’t let the human element of policy get in the way. Pezzullo comes from Customs – he’s dealt with inanimate things. Containers, mail, suitcases, drugs. It’s not humans. It’s not issues of settlement, integration, support. Mike’s not alone in this. Many in Customs are desensitised.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Inside Border Force’s power". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.