Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Operation Fortitude update - an even bigger fiasco than first thought

Earlier, I covered the ill-conceived Australian Border Force Operation Fortitude fiasco in two posts:
Now, based on information obtained under Freedom of Information, it appears that it was even a greater fiasco than I realised at the time.

Do read the emails included at the end of the ABC story. I know there are a lot, but its quite fascinating. My two posts above and especially the first will give you a feel for events as they unfolded from an external perspective.


Reflecting on the material now revealed, I'm not sure how much additional it tells us, but it does add nuance and texture. A few key points as I saw them:

  1. The original idea came from VicPol and was really something of a media stunt. The focus was being seen to act, to get brownie points - this pervades much of the stuff, including the emphasis on communications and on photo opportunities. I have expressed my dislike before about this aspect of "modern policing." It distorts policing and the role of police forces.
  2. VicPol saw this as an opportunity for collaborative action and invited other bodies to a meeting. The ABF was represented at mid-level. It seemed like a useful opportunity from an ABF perspective and ABF agreed to participate. At no stage in these initial discussions do the ABF representatives seem to have considered the appropriateness of involvement, the legal issues issues that might be involved, nor the protocols that might need to be followed. The focus seems to have been operational, a chance to to be seen to do something. The focus seems to have been on mechanics and on relations with VicPol.
  3. This applied even though Operation Fortitude seemed  to be turning into a major media event. The talking points and associated PR stuff wending its way through the clearance systems blurred ABF roles and powers. I am not sure whether the limits on ABF powers were simply taken for granted or ignored in the desire to do something. This included a we are coming to get you component.
  4. There were several potential red flag moments. In the end, the most important was the final failure to recognise centrally and in the Minister's office that this was a potentially significant political issue. It is clear from the papers that Immigration an Border Affairs has a highly centralised communications system. The papers that went up were misleadingly headed, but that's not a sufficient explanation for the failure to recognise. My feeling is that a communications system in which "operational" matters on or beyond the borders are placed beyond the communications pale was blinded by the use of the "operational" tag on a within borders matter. Even so, I would have thought that even a quick scan within the Minister's Office should have raised some flags. 
  5. It is clear that ABF Victoria was taken totally by surprise by the scale and speed of the reaction on the day. It should not have been. The ABF is a controversial initiative whose public reputation had been tarnished among many by the rhetoric and actions associated with the Abbott Government's refugee policies. There is actually something a little sad at the surprise in the papers.
  6. From the beginning, the "public safety" argument was not going to wash. This was a compliance operation involving ABF compliance staff that had no direct connection with public safety in the Melbourne CBD. Bluntly, it was a fishing expedition. I have also argued that it was a case of mission creep.
  7. There was clearly frantic activity over the weekend as chronologies were prepared and processes reviewed. By now everybody was involved!
 There is a lot in the papers that will pay future study. For the moment, my feeling remains that the operation's very failure was its greatest success from a public policy viewpoint in highlighting weaknesses in process and attitude and in the way it has focused discussion on aspects of the domestic role of ABF.        


2 tanners said...

Not much mention (still) of the point that Vic pol and taxi directorate powers were proposed to be used for visa checks. Not sure that I agree that brief was clumsily worded giving people the wrong impression. From the extensive FOI chain it looks like people had exactly the right impression. If use of the law for the purpose it was intended (Adani) is "lawfare" then this must surely be gorilla (sic) lawfare.

Jim Belshaw said...

The powers issue emerged later in the Commissioner's stuff. You are right, though: the practical effect was the same. I could have drafted stuff that would have achieved ABF objectives without creating the fuss. But then the ABF wouldn't have received the salutary check that was the greatest value.