Border Force Needs New Powers To Avoid Border Farce

14/10/2016 1:49 PM AEDT | Updated 14/10/2016 1:47 PM AEDT
Jason Reed / Reuters
A quantity of liquid methamphetamine disguised in various packaging is put on display by Australian Border Force officers at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Sydney, February 15, 2016.

It's time for the Turnbull government to reconsider the role of the Border Force and the legislative powers that it exercises.

Last week, the Fair Work Commission made an order that the Community and Public Sector Union terminate all protected industrial action within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This week Border Force operations at Australia's ports and airports are finally returning to normal.

The almost three year-long industrial dispute over pay and conditions shows we've still have significant vulnerabilities in our border security arrangements. Border security legislative reform is urgently required.

A little over a year ago, government stood up the ABF as the operational and enforcement arm of the DIBP. This was a strategic response to the complex threats at Australia's borders – including terrorism, serious and organised crime and the challenge of identifying individuals travelling to fight in foreign conflicts and returnees from Iraq and Syria.

The Border Force reform was focused on professionalising front line officers in terms of capability and accountability. ABF officers weren't to be public servants with a gun. They were to be a disciplined force in frontline domestic security.

This year's industrial action has seen ABF officers being diverted from cargo inspection areas. At the cost of cargo inspections ABF officers have been redeployed to airports to maintain the integrity of the air traveler steam.

But last financial year the Department didn't meet its inspection targets for air and sea cargo by almost five percent: around 5,000 packages weren't inspected by ABF officers. Many of these would have contained commodities such as ice, heroin, weapons, or child exploitation material.

The vulnerabilities in the Border Force legislative framework aren't just limited to industrial relations arrangements. It's the ABF's inconsistent access to relevant enforcement powers and delegations. This is particularly evident with surveillance and telecommunications powers.

ABF officers are increasingly undertaking complex investigations in drug importation, foreign fighters, hate preachers and organised crime.

When it comes to these kinds of complex operations, telecommunication intercept powers are an essential investigative tool. But ABF officers don't have the necessary powers.

Senior Border Force officers can authorise the deployment of ABF officers to undertake physical surveillance. But these same officers are unable to authorise the use of technical devices such electronic trackers. That's despite the fact that they achieve the same outcome as physical surveillance at a fraction of the cost.

It's an appropriate time for government to consider whether ABF officers should be prevented from taking strike action. ABF could be officers to be employed under an act separate from the Public Service Act, under arrangements similar to those of the Australian Federal Police.

The Turnbull government should review Border Force powers, including access to search warrant and telecommunication powers. A joint parliamentary committee on border security could be established to undertake the review or the existing Joint Committee on Law Enforcement could be expanded to include the ABF in its remit.

Without such a review a number of substantive vulnerabilities will continue to hamper Border Force operations and undermine our national security.

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