The latest Australian Border Farce: pointless politicking with customs

A former customs officer reflects on the government's plan to revisit past failures.

As a former customs officer with more than 20 years in the business until I left late last century, the entire saga of the new Australian Border Force washes over me like deja vu observed in a hall of mirrors.

Every time a minister for customs or the equivalent has changed since Federation about 115 years ago, the new, fearless, reforming, political maestro engages in some self-indulgent bureaucratic vandalism to put his (usually his) stamp on history - because, of course, new ministers are so good that no one who has been doing the job for years has ever previously had any bright ideas.

The border agency approach has mostly failed in Britain, the United States and Canada, and now the Abbott government wants to inflict a paramilitary stance on Australian civilian border control.

The new pseudo-seaguard is the result of a confected panic of the politicians' own making: neither main party effectively manages risk, and each is brilliant at cravenly pandering to special-interest lobbies and other rent seekers. Both parties continue to fight in a tightening downward spiral on refugees, a relative non-issue for Australia - try being Jordan for a year, then we might actually have a problem to discuss, debate and ''defeat''!

The proposed, made-for-television Australian Border Force also proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of customs work.


The great majority of a customs officer's daily duties consist of enforcing trade and revenue laws to ensure that import duties, GST and the like that are due to the government are collected. Officers could complete a 30-year career without ever seeing in anger an asylum seeker, weapons, drugs or anything more interesting than bulk sea cargo.

Customs, immigration and quarantine staff are presently public servants, not sworn law-enforcement officers, although Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's militarisation of the border agencies seems aimed at changing that, to counter those dire existential threats to the north we are unable to bug.

The Border Force proposal also seems to assume that immigration staff have frontline enforcement duties. Well, no, actually. If they need to resort to ''force'', they've lost.

Other than the field detention teams that arrest and deport visa overstayers, all immigration officers are back-end public servants. By the way, the number of overstayers has, in recent years, been at least double the number of refugees by boat: about 20,000 overstayers a year. In relation to the panic about a few thousand refugee claimants, there are about 50,000 unlawful overstayers in Australia at any one time.

The Border Force is a solution in search of a problem - and, even then, the government is looking at the wrong problem area at that. The government has totally failed to justify the current plan in terms other than ideology.

The proposal harks back to the fortunately short-lived Department of Police and Customs in the mid-1970s, luckily abolished when Malcolm Fraser won government as there were many justified concerns that the new agency would have too much power, like the Queensland police under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The Border Force proposal also seems to assume that immigration staff have frontline enforcement duties. Well, no, actually. If they need to resort to 'force', they've lost.

The department lasted only from March to December 1975, though it was headed by a man who would become a knight, Alan Carmody. Reflective of those troubled times, it had three ministers in six months: Kep Enderby, Jim Cavanagh and Ivor Greenwood.

Of course, the chances of senior bureaucrats advising ministers who exhibit megalomaniac tendencies that the circumstances do not justify such a lurch to the paramilitary are extremely slim to non-existent.

Former colleagues tell me that, with so many senior office holders these days, the widespread motivation in the public service is mainly personal advancement and careerism. The concept of a duty to the wider Australian public has been at best diluted since the now-common summary dismissals of senior agency heads for political reasons. Today, the Australian Public Service, being swept clean by a Hockey stick, is being dumbed down into traumatised silence for the next few years.

Some ministers are better at claiming than doing. Some governments are better at criticising opponents than achieving a new direction. Some public servants are better at parroting politicians than producing original counter-arguments: arguments that are common sense and that oppose reinventing expensive square-wheeled miscarriages, dragged by white elephants.

When public service chiefs appear to mirror the mindset and the mien of the ministerial master, beware: it's a bit like a student plagiarising to pass an exam. The student might achieve a pass mark, but there's no net gain to knowledge or progress of the individual or the institution.

I'd like to say ''watch this space'', to hear the views of those dedicated customs people I used to work with. Then I remind myself that many who remain in customs are of course cowed by restrictions on their off-duty behaviour, gag orders on public servants, and the genuine risk of misconduct charges and prosecution under the Crimes Act.

They may as well be ''on-water'' refugees. We're not allowed to hear anything about them, either.

The author, who prefers to remain unnamed, is a former customs officer. This article was first published by Civil Liberties Australia.