ROMAN QUAEDVLIEG STANDING tall in his smart black suit – medals glistening, insignia flashing – looked every bit the man-in-uniform from central casting when he stood between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on 1 July 2015 to launch a new paramilitary unit to protect Australia’s borders. Australian Border Force was modelled on a similar agency created in Britain two years earlier but with a distinctive accent. Operation Sovereign Borders had changed the culture of military, policing and customs agencies in Australia as they were pushed out of their silos with a new shared priority: stop refugees arriving by boat. Just fourteen months earlier Scott Morrison, then the Immigration Minister, had announced the formation of the new armed and uniformed force, describing it as the ‘reform dividend from stopping the boats’. The seventy-year-old department had gained a new role: ‘Border Protection’. The old tags, ‘Multiculturalism’, ‘Citizenship’ and ‘Ethnic Affairs’, were artefacts of other ages when population growth coupled with social cohesion had been the goal.
The announcement that the armed Border Force had emerged out of the chrysalis of the old customs service, complete with new uniforms, ranks and insignia, on that mid-winter day was another sign of Canberra’s increasing preoccupation with security and militarisation. Fear and safety were still at the heart of the political narrative just as they had been for most of the time since 2001, when Prime Minister John Howard won an unlikely election victory by declaring over and over, ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come’. He liked to reassure people that Australia would still be taking more than its share of refugees, but the proportion of overseas-born residents fell over the early years of his prime ministership. After decades of multiculturalism the Australian ear was once again being attuned to new arrivals as threat.
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