Turnbull transforms immigration into a security issue

July 22, 2017
Turnbull announces the broadening of the involvement of military special forces in domestic policing.

A hallmark of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was responding to falling opinion polls by holding press conferences full of totalitarian imagery, announcing moves to weaken civil liberties or intensify persecution of refugees in the name of keeping Australians safe from the apparent existential threat of terrorism. His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, is trying to out-do him.

Abbott was content to use an array of Australian flags as backdrop for his national security press conferences. But Turnbull's July 17 announcement of changes to the Defence Act that would broaden the involvement of military special forces in domestic policing was made in Holsworthy Army Barracks in front of an inflatable boat with a prominently mounted machine gun and a line of special forces soldiers wearing Darth Vader masks and bristling with high technology and lethal weapons. 

The announcement came a week after the ABC published leaked documents showing that Australian special forces in Afghanistan had a “culture of impunity” and are suspected of war crimes such as murdering civilians, including children, extra-judicial executions of prisoners and mutilating corpses.

The following day, Turnbull announced the formation of a new Home Affairs portfolio, described as a “super security ministry” that the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and Border Force would all report to. The new “super ministry” will subsume the immigration department and immigration minister Peter Dutton has become Australia’s first Home Affairs Minister.

The previous week, Turnbull foreshadowed attacks on online privacy that will try to ban encryption protocols.

Going by the standard script of this form of political theatre, the announcements were made with hysterical fear-mongering about the alleged threat to Australia by global terrorists and passionate promises to keep Australia safe.

This is despite the number of terrorist attacks in Australia being negligible and government policy in other areas suggesting that their passion to keep people in Australia safe is false. 

In Australia more people are killed by domestic violence in a month than have ever been killed by terrorists, yet the government has cut funding to services helping women escape violence, failed to address the police and judiciary not taking the issue seriously and shown consistent hostility to any moves to tackle the sexist ideologies responsible.

Workplace deaths are an even greater killer. The government's response is to criminalise the CFMEU and other unions for trying to enforce health and safety standards.

A government that was actually concerned with public safety would not continue to prioritise road over rail in infrastructure spending when cars kill more than 1200 people in Australia each year.

A July 18 statement by independent MP Andrew Wilkie described the announcements as “alarming” and said Dutton's new “super security ministry” represented more of a threat than terrorists. 

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new “super security ministry” is the way it is built around an increasingly militarised immigration department. 

Not a single terrorist has ever come to Australia as a refugee arriving by boat, so the government has other official justifications for Australia's cruel anti-refugee policies. However, the conflation of refugees and terrorists is central to the government's propaganda and dog-whistling on the issue.

Unions have expressed concern that subsuming immigration in a security-focused “super-ministry” will increase neglect of immigration department functions such as providing settlement services.

“We are concerned that making the Immigration Department the base of a home affairs portfolio could mean a potential downgrading of Australia's core immigration and settlement functions,” Community and Public Sector Union secretary Nadine Flood said on July 19.

The change of the immigration department's focus since then-Prime Minister John Howard launched Australia's war on refugees in 2001 is reflected in its multiple name changes. Once the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, it is now the Department of Immigration and Border Security.

In July 2015, customs and immigration enforcement agencies were merged into the paramilitary Border Force.

As immigration minister, Dutton has excelled in inflexibly administering policies that separate families, deport refugees to danger and leave thousands languishing in hellish concentration camps or living in limbo in the community without rights to work, education or welfare. He has also excelled in enforcing a veil of secrecy over the department's activities. 

Dutton has outdone previous immigration ministers in his racist attacks on refugees, for example managing in a single sentence to accuse them of both taking Australians' jobs and languishing on unemployment benefits. The implication that refugees are security threats is a constant theme.

The creation of the Home Affairs portfolio will complete the transformation of immigration policy into a security issue.

Labor has made some criticisms of the “super security ministry”, but on issues of efficiency rather than questioning its underlying assumptions. Bill Shorten has demanded briefings from AFP and ASIO commanders before saying whether his party will support or oppose the changes. It has fully endorsed the wider role of the army's special forces in domestic policing.

While some Labor politicians have taunted Turnbull for being motivated by the need to appease the right-wing faction of the ruling Liberal-National Coalition, these critics stop short of saying that the policy is a response to a non-existent threat.

Cruelty to refugees and sacrificing civil liberties in the name of national security remain bipartisan policies.

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