Fans of Peter Dutton’s plan for a new mega-department might describe it as a master stroke to keep us safe from the ‘hordes of Muslim terrorists at our gate’. Critics might suggest it’s just a plan by Peter Dutton to give Peter Dutton a promotion… and further institutionalise racial discrimination. Michael Brull is not a fan.
In an story on Tuesday that received less attention than warranted, Peter Hartcher reported at Fairfax on plans being considered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to create an Australian Department of Homeland Security.
The way this would be done is by merging “at least half a dozen relevant federal agencies from two departments into a mega-department.” The head of the new mega ministry would be current Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton.
Hartcher reports that the aim of this expansion would be “to improve co-ordination across the government in preventing terrorist attacks”.
The planned DHS would be created by relocating agencies from other offices. For example, the Attorney-General’s department would lose the Australian Federal Police and ASIO. They would fall under the control of Dutton.
There is some resistance to the move within the government. One government official told Fairfax that the plan was “based on an ambition for ‘empire-building’ by the plan’s architect, Secretary of the Immigration Department, Mike Pezzullo, and Mr Dutton.” A Minister said it “doesn’t have the support of any agency other than Pezzullo at Immigration, and Roman Quaedvlieg,” the Australian Border Force Commissioner.
Hartcher reports that the ABF “absorbed the Customs Department under an initiative of Mr Pezzullo”. A minister complained that, “The people who militarised Customs are now trying to take over the entire national security system”.
As Hartcher reported, Dutton is “the most senior conservative in the Turnbull cabinet”. He “strongly” favours the move. His new ministry will ramp up the government’s focus on preventing terrorism, and presumably give expanded resources and perhaps powers to the Australian Border Force.
This story didn’t cause much of a ripple, but it should have caused considerable alarm. Though the official rationale of the proposed body isn’t to institutionalise racism, we can expect that to be an important result. The Department of Immigration has already been brought into a shared portfolio with Border Protection by Tony Abbott in 2013. Now it would be subsumed into a body devoted to countering terrorism.
Turnbull empowering his Hanson: The politics of creating a DHS
Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership was distinguished by the use of Muslims as scapegoats. Whether attempting to sell wars in the Middle East, or arrest his decline in the polls, Abbott discovered that Muslims were bad and their leaders didn’t “mean it” when they condemned terrorist attacks (which also wasn’t “often” enough for Abbott). In the end, it didn’t save him, but it helped stoke the fervour of present anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia.
Likewise Malcolm Turnbull. As his popularity collapsed, he too turned on Muslims. Yet for those who hate Muslims, Turnbull is still suspect. His hosting of an Iftar was subject to vicious attack by Islamophobes. The Murdoch press led the attack on Muslim clerics in attendance. One example of this was the false claim by Rita Panahi that Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman had links to al Qaeda. To the right-wing of the Liberal Party, Turnbull has been tainted by his association with Muslims who they regard as fundamentalist extremists with questionable positions on al Qaeda.
Peter Dutton does not share that problem. He is the senior conservative Liberal in the cabinet, is beloved by reactionary commentators, and his credentials on hating Muslims are impeccable.
Last year, Dutton explained that we should be “honest” about the mistakes made by the Fraser government in the 1970s in letting people from a “certain community” into Australia. Because there have been 22 people charged with terrorism related offences from that “certain community” – Lebanese Muslims. Dutton rejected his critics, announcing that, “I am not interested in the politically correct nonsense that the Leader of the Opposition might carry on with.”
Whilst the far right may be suspicious of Turnbull, Dutton can be their poster boy within the Turnbull cabinet. Turnbull stood by his man, repeatedly identifying Dutton as “outstanding”, and also “thoughtful and committed and compassionate”. If Turnbull can’t shore up his right-wing credentials by bringing Abbott back into the cabinet, and doesn’t make a convincing Muslim baiter, he can always give Dutton a free hand to do so. Such as by giving him a massive promotion, and making him one of Australia’s most powerful ministers. Turnbull will not need to turn into Pauline Hanson. He’ll just empower Dutton, to functionally achieve the same end.
The proposed DHS would combine border protection, counter-terrorism, and policing. By creating such a large organisation, with a broad mandate and considerable resources, the government would be creating a small empire. It would be expected to lobby for hardline policies in relation to Muslims, asylum seekers, and perhaps eventually on the issue of immigration from Muslim countries. It would consider issues like immigration and asylum seekers through a counter-terrorism prism, and craft messaging in line with that agenda.
The clown cart of thugs
The architect of the plan is Pezzulo, the Secretary of the Immigration Department. Its other key backers are Dutton and Quaedvlieg, the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force. They would be empowered by this plan, so it is worth sampling from their record.
The three stooges’ last famous collaboration was Operation Fortitude in 2015. The ABF announced that it would engage in a joint operation with Victorian Police to target crimes like visa fraud in Melbourne’s CBD. They explained that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.
The idea of Australian Border Force officials marching around the city, inspecting the papers of people who look foreign didn’t go down very well with the rest of Australia. The idea was so appalling even Tony Abbott immediately said such a thing would “never, ever happen” in Australia.
Within four and a half hours of the announcement, the “operation” was cancelled. The ABF scrambled. They announced that 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.”
Dutton refused to comment on what he called an operational manner. Presumably, that meant he backed it until it was scrapped in the face of public outrage.
Quaedvlieg claimed the announcement had just been “clumsily worded”, and thus “misconstrued”. Pezzullo later claimed that the media release was “very badly worded”. Also, “We certainly don’t rely on racial profiling at all”. A sentence one regularly hears from those who do racially profile.
Quaedvlieg went on to say the announcement was not just badly worded, but was also “factually wrong”. Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg said they took full responsibility for what happened, though they more or less blamed whoever had written the media release. Dutton’s office received an advanced copy of the media release, but claimed not to have read it. The Guardian went on to reveal it was actually sent to his office twice.
As seen, he declined to comment on the ABF plan originally, calling it an operational matter. By the next week, Dutton claimed critics of the operation were on a “jihad” against the government. Apparently puzzled at public opposition, he claimed “All I can say is the reaction to the Australian Border Force operation in Melbourne was hysterical by some of these media outlets and it’s hard to seek an explanation for that”. It tells you something about Dutton that he can’t understand why people felt strongly about goons in uniform demanding random foreigners answer questions about their visas.
That gives you an idea of the team working together. Let’s consider their individual efforts, starting with Peter Dutton.
As noted, Dutton thinks it was a mistake to let Lebanese Muslims into the country 40 years ago, as the grandchildren of some of those immigrants have been charged with serious crimes. He was also accidentally recorded trading racist jokes with Tony Abbott. He remarked that the Pacific Island summit was running on “Cape York time”. As Abbott had just met with Pacific Island leaders to discuss climate change, Dutton commented that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”. Evidently, he is not too troubled by the impending destruction of our small island neighbours.
Before his appointment as Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Dutton served Abbott loyally as an incompetent Health Minister. He was voted “overwhelmingly” as the worst Health Minister in the last 35 years by 1,100 readers of Australian Doctor. He was the only Coalition frontbencher to boycott Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.
One of Dutton’s first acts upon becoming Immigration Minister in 2015 was to push something called the Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill, designed to give Serco guards the right to use force against detainees, and to make it hard for detainees to successfully complain about that use of force.
Then there is Pezzullo, the architect of the DHS plan. Almost exactly a year ago, he wrote a media release in which he offered a spirited defence of government treatment of asylum seekers. Though it is not even slightly his job to defend government policy, that is what he did.
He rejected comparisons to gulags, torture, and claims that there was cruelty involved. Most weirdly, he rejected suggestions that detention “involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany”. People on social media wondered why he thought those evils only allegedly occurred in Nazi Germany.
In a follow up media release, the Department wrote, “Any insinuation the Department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless”. Though he should have stopped there, he didn’t. Unbelievably, the statement went on to comment on attitudes during Nazi Germany: “We reject the comparison to immigration detention as offensive and question this being made as a blanket statement – an allegation hence ‘allegedly’ – to describe the attitude of the German population at large during that terrible time.”
Difficult to parse, the final bit seems to suggest that they reject blanket statements being made about German attitudes during the Nazi era. Which is very strange territory for the Australian Border Force to enter. Firstly, because they were not obligated to defend government policy in the first place. Secondly, because their decision to do so did not require them to stake out a position about German attitudes toward Nazi atrocities.
They also posted a postscript to the original media release. Strongly combative, it firmed up the ABF position on Nazi Germany. It argued that “Far from seeking to numb an indifferent public, [the Nazi government]sought to vilify and persecute Jews and others, before engaging in the systematic and evil genocide of the Holocaust.” So, er, that’s why comparing the alleged numbing of the public in relation to immigration detention is unlike anything in Nazi Germany.
As for Quaedvlieg, he is currently trying to confiscate mobile phones from detainees in immigration detention in Australia, including asylum seekers. He claimed that “The phones will be used for drug activities and escape plans.” 179 phones have been confiscated so far. The National Justice Project won a temporary injunction from the Federal Court, preventing the ABF from taking the phones from the rest of the detainees. At the time of writing, the legal battle is still continuing.
That trio – Quaedvlieg, Pezzullo, Dutton – is the trio who would drive policy and messaging on counter-terrorism and immigration policy, if the plan for a DHS goes ahead.
If they’re given a DHS to helm, it would signal that the government seriously intends to adopt Hansonism. This is a story we should be very alarmed by, and watch closely.