The chronology of events on Friday 28 August drawn from the ABC appears to be roughly as follows.
9.52am. The Victoria Police announced Operation Fortitude. The statement appears to be no longer on-line. The public transport system would, the statement said, "be at its safest ... as a diverse team of transport and enforcement agencies take to the streets as a part of Operation Fortitude". I don't know who dreamed up that name. Fortitude means mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously: Within hours, all the participants were definitely in need of fortitude.
The operation would involve Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff's Office, Taxi Services Commission, Victoria Police and the Australia Border Force (ABF). Transit and Public Safety Command Acting Superintendent Campbell Mill said police would be showing strength in numbers.
"While we are all separate organisations, we all have something in common — a responsibility to keep our community safe," Acting Superintendent Mill said. "In order to do that, we need to ensure that people are behaving appropriately."
“For those of you who choose to break the rules expect to be caught by the Operation Fortitude team,” transit and public safety command acting superintendent, Campbell Mill, said in a statement.
“There is a lot of truth to the saying that there is strength in numbers,” he said.
“From a policing perspective we will have protective services officers, passive alert detection dogs, police, booze buses and automated number plate recognition vehicles deployed this Friday and Saturday night.”
It marks the first time border force staff have joined with transport and enforcement agencies to target crime in the CBD.
"You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it's only a matter of time before you're caught out," ABF regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania Don Smith says.
The Australian Border Force (and here and here) is a new creation coming into effect from 1 July 2015 combining the immigration and customs function. Presented by the Australian Government as a border protection measure, its formation has created considerable disquiet in some sections of the Australian community.
"To be clear, the ABF does not and will not stop people at random in the streets ... the ABF does not target of the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity," it says in a statement.
2.39pm Victoria Police issue a statement saying the operation has been cancelled.
"Victoria Police has made a decision not to go ahead with this weekend's Operation Fortitude," the statement says.
"We understand there has been a high level of community interest and concern which has been taken into consideration when making this decision.
"Victoria Police's priority is the safety and wellbeing of the whole community and we will continue to work with our partner agencies to achieve this."
Commissioner Quaedvlieg: No, look, these operations are run all the time, all around the country, by the state and territory police jurisdictions. They're intended to create safe environments and if we can market that in advance in terms of the increased police presence and other authorities and that creates a safe environment then that's also part of the agenda.
Commissioner Quaedvlieg: Well, as I explained to you that was a press release that was released at the lower levels of the organisation. It incorrectly construed what our role was. I've mentioned a couple of times now we are a secondary referral agency with that operation.
Finally, after considerable delay Prime Minister Abbott has apparently released a statement reassuring the Australian public that Border Force officials will never stop them randomly in the streets to check their visas.Mr Abbott said that it was to be a "standard law enforcement operation" and anyone suspected of having a visa issue would be referred to ABF officers in "the normal way".
The wording used by Acting Superintendent Campbell Mill is quite harsh. “For those of you who choose to break the rules expect to be caught by the Operation Fortitude team,” Again:"While we are all separate organisations, we all have something in common — a responsibility to keep our community safe......In order to do that, we need to ensure that people are behaving appropriately." Note, not break the law, but break the rules. Note not obey the law, but behave appropriately. The range of bodies and kit proposed to be involved was also quite extraordinary.
Whether Melbourne has been in the grip of such a crime wave to justify such an effort is one thing, whether it makes sense to announce it in advance a second. However, there is a third factor.
Excluding Border Force for the moment, the distinctive common feature among the various bodies is that they provide a point at which a person can be stopped for one reason and then checked for others. The Border Force statement may indeed have been badly worded, but there was, I think, a subtle dishonesty or perhaps misdirection in the Commissioner's responses and indeed in the PM's response.
The much criticized statement that sparked the whole furor said in part that the ABF would speak "with any individual we cross paths with", warning that officers would be checking people's visa details. This was interpreted to mean that the ABF would be bailing people up in the street. This was probably a good thing, for without that interpretation and the consequent process Operation Fortitude might have proceeded. The real position was stated quite clearly by the ABF commissioner, although I don't think that it was properly picked up: "The Australian Border Force will stand by to receive the referrals from the Victorian Police where there are any immigration compliance issues to be enforced or dealt with." With so many referral points, the ABF didn't need to be out on the street in order for individuals to cross its path.
I have seen this type of process at work a number of times on the Parramatta train.The transport inspectors or police on the trains check for fair evasion. In several cases, I have observed these checks go to checks of address details and from there to questions about immigration status leading to what appears to be arrests or at least detention pending clarification.
Drawing this analysis together, we have a proposed large scale police operation without a clearly defined policing objective or at least need beyond, quoting the ABF commissioner, creating "a safe city environment within Melbourne" drawing together people and bodies not normally seen as having an integral policing function . We have a Commonwealth body, the ABF, whose mandate has nothing to do with "a safe city environment" directly involved in what appears to be a large scale fishing exercise to the point of press release and participation in the proposed press conference. This was hardly, to use Mr Abbott's words, a standard law enforcement operation.
It appears that Minister Dutton's Office received a copy of the ABF release, but no one read it because it was regarded as a routing matter.
Interesting tweet from @ as to the choice of Melbourne for Operation Fortitude, amplifying the general point I made above about the role of other agencies as check points that would then allow ABF staff to act. I used a NSW example to illustrate, but Victorian transit staff would seem to have even more power.
In a follow up piece today (1 September) in the Canberra Times, Putting the muscle into border enforcement, Peter Hartcher discusses the militarisation of Border Force.
Mr Hartcher suggests that there are three layers to the Border under the new doctrine:
- pre-border, where applications are made and scanned and intelligence checks operate to reduce risk.
- the traditional border, where people arrive at an airport and submit their papers.
- "behind the border", a zone that the rest of us know as "in Australia".
As indicated in the post, to my mind neither the new ABF nor the aborted operation Fortitude are in any way business as usual. This is further confirmed by the reference in Mr Hartcher's column to official comments that the problem lay in part in the absence of operating protocols to guide this type of operation. That is hardly business as usual.
The transformation of the old immigration and customs functions from a compliance to a policing and even quasi-military function in at least the case of off-shore operations may be consistent with and driven by the Australian Government's policy stance, but it is quite new. It also holds out the possibility for increased jurisdictional conflict with multiple policing and compliance layers now involved. Those operating protocols will be sorely needed.