Border Force: Operation total debacle

Photo: Australian Border Force/ Facebook.

What a mess.

Around 10am this morning Australia’s new-look Customs agency, Australian Border Force, announced in a bizarre statement that its agents would be working with Victoria Police in “Operation Fortitude”.

If only they’d had the fortitude to put the idea through some kind of common sense test.

Working with Victoria Police, the sherrif’s department, and transport authorities, the idea involved Border Force officials “positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.

There’s a simple way to read this: customs officials were going to be stopping people in the street, probably anyone who didn’t look “Australian”, and asking them about why they were in the country.

Immigration officials on the streets of Australia’s second-biggest city effectively saying “Papers, please” on a Saturday? Really?

The ABF’s regional commander Don Smith was ominously quoted in the announcement as saying: “You should be aware of the conditions of the visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.”

Well yeah, but there are plenty of people tracked down and deported all the time without deploying law enforcement officials on streets to stop people and start questioning them as they make their way to the football or the supermarket.

And like all Australian cities Melbourne is enormously ethnically diverse. What, you would sensibly ask, could possibly go wrong?

A media event to explain the operation was scheduled for 2pm, but was cancelled shortly before it was due to start. Then shortly afterwards came the news that the whole thing was off.

The Victorian Government has scrambled to distance itself from the communications from ABF, saying in a statement this afternoon that it supported the decision of the state police to call the operation off. The statement referred to the “unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation by the Australian Border Force today”.

You couldn’t make it up.

If immigration really did intend to sweep through and catch some illegal immigrants on a Saturday night, the dumbest thing you could do would be to announce it on a Friday morning and send every visa-less migrant into the nearest bolt-hole for the weekend.

Giving the good folks at Border Force the benefit of the doubt and assuming they’re not this stupid, the logical conclusion is that this was a publicity stunt.

Perhaps it’s because with the boats effectively stopped, the border protection service is looking for something to do.

Besides, they’ve just been through a $10 million re-branding exercise with the name change to Australian Border Force, involving the issue of new uniforms and shiny new badges to front line officers.

Arguably there’s no better way to show some ROI by raising the profile of the new brand by confronting some people going about their business on the weekend and asking them why they’re sitting on the tram.

Bam. Instant increase in brand recall scores!

There’s also a more uneasy, somewhat conspiratorial theory that people are jumping for – that it was about keeping national security and border protection issues high on the public agenda, because it always helps the federal government.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s office pointed to the comments from the ABF commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg, who said yesterday the initial press release with the quotes from Smith as being “clumsily worded”.

“It was their mistake,” the minister’s spokesperson said.

Regardless, it’s worth enjoying the implosion of a bizarre government idea within hours of it being announced.

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