In late August the Abbott Government’s Australian Border Force announced it would be stopping people on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD and checking their visa status. ‘Operation Fortitude’ would involve the Border Force ‘speaking with any individuals we cross paths with,’ a departmental media release claimed.
The Border Force regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania warned Melburnians that they ‘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.’
The public reaction was immediate. Many thousands of people expressed outrage at the political stunt on social media and a snap protest was called to disrupt the press conference to launch Operation Fortitude on the steps of Flinders Street station. Hundreds of people turned out to protest with only two hours’ notice, occupying both the Flinders Street station intersection and the station itself.
Acknowledging the public outrage, a Border Force spokesperson tried to back away from the initial claim that people would be stopped at random, and denied racial profiling would be employed. As news of the story spread and public anger became more vocal, it was claimed Operation Fortitude was simply a routine operation.
With public sentiment clearly against the flagrant flouting of civil liberties, the press conference was cancelled. It was then swiftly announced that the operation itself had been cancelled.
The rapid and overwhelming response of outrage from the people of Melbourne had undoubtedly caused the embarrassing retreat. Operation Fortitude was intended to be part of the Abbott Government’s ‘tough stance’ on border control and policing more broadly. That theAbbott Government arrogantly believed it could criminalise it’s own citizens as part of a cheap media stunt speaks volumes about its brazen grandstanding. It also speaks to the total lack of opposition tothis right-wing shift within parliament.
In midst of the embarrassing backdown, the Abbott Government attempted to distance itself from the controversy. Despite supporting the proposal just hours earlier, Abbott claimed he wanted 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”. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton blamed a poorly written media release for the incident and then denied having ever known about it.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who initially expressed support for the operation, cynically changed tack when it was clear the tide had turned and attacked the Government for its incompetence.
The resistance to this attempt to whip up fear, scapegoat minorities and attack civil liberties came from ordinary people, both online and on the streets. Without these protests Operation Fortitude would have gone ahead.
After years of fear mongering about crime, terrorism and immigration the people’s victory against Operation Fortitude is an important one. It came in the days following the dropping of all charges against two young Muslim men who were arrested in ‘terror raids’ earlier in 2015, in the midst of a media circus. The reaction to Operation Fortitude demonstrates the limits of the Government’s attempts to continually use fear to keep people docile and compliant.
It also demonstrates that the actions of ordinary people can change the course of politics quite decisively. With no genuine representation in parliament, the role of public defiance and protest is particularly important. The resistance to Operation Fortitude hintsat the sort of mass, collective action we need to take to build a movement against racist oppression and attacks on civil liberties.
We need to build a strong movement that can further expose the Government’s fear mongering and refocus people’s anger where it really belongs. It’s not Muslims, refugees or migrant workers who are undermining the public health, education and transport systems: it’s politicians and their big business backers. Their neoliberal agenda insists on the job losses, budget cuts and privatisations that are reducing quality of life in Australia.
The only solution to this is to build a mass movement to oppose racist scapegoating and fight together for jobs, homes and services for everyone. Such a movement would quickly find that its goals contradict those of the capitalist parties who claim to represent us, and a new political formation based on socialist ideas could become viable. This would represent a huge step towards the type of systemic social change needed to ensure heavy handed policing and racial profiling become relics of the past.
By Chris Dite