Border Force fiasco: how to create a public relations disaster

By David Donaldson

August 28, 2015

The Australian Border Force’s announcement that it would be combing Melbourne’s streets for visa fraud this morning has been a public relations disaster, ending in cancellation and a whole lot of bad press for an operation that wasn’t even their own.

It’s a lesson in how quickly a story can turn bad: it took a mere few hours from the announcement of the Australian Border Force’s involvement in Victoria Police’s Operation Fortitude on Friday morning for the agencies involved to backtrack and, ultimately, cancel the entire exercise.

The ABF’s bellicose language resulted in snap protests — at the place where many journalists were invited for a press conference, right across the road from an earlier event featuring Christopher Pyne at which protesters had been present, only for the press conference itself to be cancelled.

It has also invited speculation that this was one of the media-driven weekly national security “announceables” Laura Tingle reported had been requested by the National Security Committee of the cabinet in the lead-up to next year’s election.

Initially ABF stated it would join a range of agencies — Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff’s Office, the Taxi Services Commission and Victoria Police — “targeting everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants” in Melbourne’s city over the weekend.

In a move that set the hares running, ABF Regional Commander Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith announced:

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

Unsurprisingly, most took this to mean ABF would be “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”, targeting those suspected of visa fraud.

Unlike airport operations, where predictive modelling is used to identify those arriving in Australia — whether from particular countries, certain areas within countries, or other characteristics — stopping people on the street does not allow for the use of intelligence in choosing targets accurately.

Immediately concerns were raised on social media about racial profiling, leading ABF to subsequently state it would “not be ‘stopping people at random’ in Melbourne to ‘check people’s papers’ as reported in media this morning” and “does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.”

Instead, it said, ABF “will assist other agencies in this operation by conducting background visa checks on individuals who are referred to us by Victoria Police and other agencies.”

It also stated: “Joint operations of this type are common and were previously conducted by Departmental immigration officers.”

Visa non-compliance operations tend to target industries known for high levels of non-compliance, or go after known individuals believed to be in breach of visa conditions, though it is not clear whether the operation intended to do either of these things (and certainly the original statement made it sound like such approaches would not be taken).

Apart from obvious rights concerns about asking people on the street for their ‘papers’, such an approach would be far more resource-intensive for less return than the usual targeted operations — not to mention that pre-announcing a drive to find those committing “visa fraud” if they happen to be in a certain area at a certain time would have led to individuals without documents calling in sick or cancelling plans this afternoon.

Government invited media to a protest

Following widespread media interest, a large number of journalists turned up to the press conference scheduled for the steps of Flinders street station — one of the busiest points in the whole of Melbourne — to be met with loud protests and a cancelled press conference. The result: plenty of television footage of people accusing the government of racism.

And now the whole thing has been called off — with a media narrative of Border Force overreach that will be difficult to shake.

The Victorian government has distanced itself from the operation, with Police Minister Wade Noonan stating: “We fully support the decision by Victoria Police to cancel the operation after the unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation by the Australian Border Force today.”

Border Force officials found themselves trapped at Flinders Station following the aborted press conference. They were eventually escorted out, after changing into plain clothes, by Victorian Police officers.

The Community and Public Sector Union says it has been contacted by Border Force members “deeply concerned about the way their work has been politicised” and the safety risks it has created. CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood called for the government to stop putting ABF officers at risk through political stunts:

“Their work is challenging under most circumstances but this adds another and unnecessary layer of difficulty to an already taxing task.”

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