Bill Shorten Backs Melbourne’s ‘Border Farce’, Then Condemns It When It All Goes To Custard

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You would think that the Australian Border Force affair would have been the kind of gift any opposition would pray for. Instead, it’s turned out to be a grimly funny illustration of the ideals – or rather the lack of them – that animate Bill Shorten.

It’s been well reviewed across the media, so let’s recall it briefly. The Australian Border Force announced on Friday that it would “target crime” in the Melbourne Central Business District. The media release infamously included the following:

“ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with,” Mr Smith said. “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.”

How would the Australian Border Force know if an individual was committing visa fraud? Would they question every individual? Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside observed that “Australian citizens do not have to carry identity papers. Presumably the only people who would have been asked for their visas were people who look like “foreigners”: racial profiling of the crudest sort.”

High-profile racial profiling, of the crudest sort, in the heart of Australia’s second biggest city. Targeting foreigners, demonstrating border control in a crude display of force, humiliating people publicly.

Australians have shown a high level of tolerance for cruelty to foreigners – above all the asylum seekers subjected to unspeakable barbarism on Nauru. Yet heavy handed policing in the heart of Melbourne was clearly a step too far, and Melbourne, like much of the rest of the country revolted.

The whole thing was a shambles from start to finish. Aside from street protests which quickly assembled in opposition to “Operation Fortitude”, major media outlets like the ABC, Fairfax and the Guardian were clearly appalled by this development.

Even the die-hard loyalists of the Abbott government and its constant dog-whistling and worse found it hard to defend this one. Andrew Bolt, a useful barometer of Abbott’s supporters in the Murdoch press, didn’t blog in defence of the operation as it happened, and only commented the next day – seemingly with his heart not in it. Bolt didn’t support the operation, calling it “overreach by the state”. Yet he complained that the ALP joined the “hysterical abuse” of it, concluding that they don’t “take our border laws seriously”. Because they opposed a policy that Bolt also opposes.

You can get a sense of how disastrous it was by the fact that the Abbott government is desperately distancing itself from Operation Fortitude. Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared that “I want to make it absolutely crystal clear, as far as this Government is concerned, people will never be stopped in the street randomly and asked for their visa details… That’s the sort of thing that would never, ever happen in this country.”

Abbott claimed that he and his office had never received any notice of the operation.

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, unable to distance himself from his actual ministerial title, distanced himself from the operation instead.

Dutton claimed that, “There was never any intent for the ABF to conduct random visa checks during this operation. It is unfortunate that a poorly written Media Release indicated otherwise”.

So it’s all a misunderstanding, resulting from someone else’s error. However, his office was sent a copy of this media release.

When the Federal Government moves with such haste not only to distance itself from its own operation, but also to condemn it, saying it would “never, ever happen in this country”, you know that it has blundered catastrophically. Yet as noted in the Australian Financial Review, Shorten “fluffed his opportunity by essentially backing the crackdown”.

The exchange, according to the Australian, went as follows:

“Journalist: Australian Border Force officers are joining other agencies to target crime in Melbourne. Does Labor agree with this use of the Border Force?

Shorten: Labor obviously believes in targeting crime. I do hope that any of these actions are done to try and protect Australian laws, to make sure that people are not overstaying their visas, to make sure that temporary guest workers are not being exploited.

Labor’s said for a while we’re concerned that under this government our employment visas of temporary workers are becoming too slackly regulated.

To that extent we’re interested in what’s happening. If you’re going to do a blitz I don’t know why you’d necessarily telegraph it to the media first. We’ll wait to see if the government is fair dinkum or if this is just a press release to try to draw some positive attention to themselves.” [emphasis added].

Let us review the timeline, as shown by ABC journo Will Ockenden. At 10:14 am, the operation was announced. By 2:40 pm, the operation was cancelled. Bill Shorten only had a window of about four and a half hours to support Operation Fortitude before it was cancelled, under the crushing weight of its enormous unpopularity, and intrinsic awfulness.

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However, once it was cancelled, Bill Shorten quickly tapped into public opinion with the trademark honesty and integrity we’ve come to expect from him:

“One of the most catastrophically silly ideas I’ve seen this government do… To be honest, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing… I’m sure, by the way, that regardless of one’s politics, when you first heard about this, you would have gone ‘what?… As more facts came to light yesterday, I don’t think there’s a single Victorian and indeed a single Australian whose jaw just didn’t hit the ground… Truly, how dumb is this government some days?

I fly out of Melbourne early yesterday morning and Mr Abbott goes and wrecks confidence in my home town as soon as I leave the state…”

It’s hard to believe that Shorten is actually cynical enough to think that he can sell this confected outrage to the Australian public. The kind of contempt for Australian intelligence these comments display is staggering.

Another point is also worth making. Given Tony Abbott’s forthright condemnation of Operation Fortitude, I suspect that he was genuinely out of the loop on this announcement. Once it was announced, the government seems to have frantically tried to figure out how to perform damage control, and limit political exposure to the extent they could, whilst also preventing it from being carried out.

None of this applies to Bill Shorten, who is supposedly the Leader of the Opposition. Shorten’s previous fame came from betraying Rudd in 2010 and backing the Gillard coup, and then betraying Gillard and backing Rudd in 2013. The road to the top in the ALP is one where apparently ideals, integrity and principles are luxuries that intolerably weigh one down.

As repulsive as the Abbott government has been, with its race-baiting, cruelty to asylum seekers and so on, the ALP has marched in lock-step almost every step of the way. Even Operation Fortitude wasn’t awful enough for Bill Shorten to oppose it – until it had already been scrapped, and Tony Abbott had opposed it too.

Like many others on the left end of the political spectrum, the years of Abbott have been a grim horror, with occasional relief in the form of incompetent hilarity.

It looks like the Abbott government has probably been awful enough to ensure its own defeat at the next election, if Abbott makes it that far.

But this affair, and Bill Shorten’s role in it raises a troubling question.

What kind of respite from crude racism and illiberal policies will we see if Bill Shorten does become the next Prime Minister?

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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