‘Militarised’ Border Force claims are ‘inaccurate meme’: commissioner


The uniformed and public service heads of Australia’s border and immigration portfolio rejected claims of a “militarised” culture following the dissemination of internal employee survey comments on Thursday.

The survey found one in five employees in the portfolio did not view its new “mission focus” as a positive value, but rather as “narrow” and “militaristic” — mission outcomes above people. The term found a receptive audience among union members and ex-employees dissatisfied with the direction of the portfolio.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its operational enforcement arm the Australian Border Force is only 10 months into its integrated workforce structure, DIBP secretary Michael Pezzullo and ABF commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said in a statement yesterday. The process has been complex, and not without challenges. The pair wrote:

“Change is unsettling; it leads to uncertainty, so it is not unusual or unexpected to see survey results that bear out the legitimate concerns of our staff. Some decisions won’t please everyone — but that is not an excuse to resile from them. We need to work with our people to equip the organisation to meet the demands of the future.”

Pezzullo, who does have a Defence background as its once deputy secretary of strategy, has pulled from many sources of inspiration for the reforms to the department, including both military and public service experts like Peter Shergold. The leadership team cited a projected escalation in movement of people and goods to and from Australia and the need for the departmental reform to reflect this reality; ” … it will need to be intelligence-led, risk-based and more agile in adopting innovative technologies.”

Earlier this week the secretary rejected the notion that his department was afflicted by loss of deep institutional knowledge, as discussed in Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay. Rather, he agreed with Tingle’s argument about the value of that memory, as long it remains useful, based in truth, and not merely lore. The department has seen an almost-unprecedented quantity of executive departures in recent years.

Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg focused on the investment in a new increasingly professionalised and highly skilled workforce in their latest comments:

“Already we are seeing benefits in establishing blended teams of former Immigration and Customs who are working with new colleagues who bring specialist skills in areas such as intelligence, analytics, investigations and operations. Effecting this workforce transition, and with it a fresh culture, will take time.”

Weapons limited to operational duties

Since the creation of the ABF it has been subject to significant criticism, specifically the accusation that the ABF has militarised the department’s frontline functions. Other experts have rejected those claims, like ASPI’s John Coyne who wrote recently that the criticism has confused border securitisation with some kind of military function. Those criticism have been external, or were, until the release of the employee survey findings yesterday.

The survey found one in five public servants had concerns about the brand image of the portfolio, seeing it as “paramilitary” and “exclusionary” to non-uniformed staff. That was picked up by union representatives and led to renewed accusation of militarisation. Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg dismissed those claims:

“We reject categorically the inaccurate and unhelpful meme that the department has a ‘militarised’ culture: the only staff required to be in uniform and to carry weapons are those whose duties require it and who are properly credentialed and trained.”

The secretary and commissioner remain concerned that employees engaging in political activities need to be mindful of perceptions of conflict of interest or partiality. They warned those employees to consider their involvement carefully.

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