11/11/2015 5:47 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

The Risky Business Of Border Security

Fence with hole
Fence with hole

Border security is a tricky and arduous issue for Australian politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists -- and most importantly the Australian public.

It can be an election winner or loser, a source of strength or weakness, a cliché without meaning, a call to arms, the source of threat or risks, a wedge or cornerstone of social cohesion... or all of the above.

Put simply, a nation's border security is intrinsically linked to national security. For politicians, strong border security in times of uncertainty is also about obtaining and maintaining public confidence.

Little surprise then, that public policy dialogue on border security is so often oversimplified into a debate about balancing securing or not securing. Or worse, an activity in demonising the bureaucrats, soldiers, sailors and airman on the frontline. But both trends only hide the real issues.

Today it's hard enough to actually identify where the border is let alone develop an informed policy position that articulates how 'getting tough' will be operationalised.

The border is still a physical space. It is our international airports and ports as well as our coast. But it's now much more than a line on a map defining where the government's power begins and ends. It's a complex place that is core to Australia's security, health, wealth and cohesion.

Securing a nation's borders, in an absolute sense, is at best an aspirational goal. Even if it were possible to check every package and every person entering and leaving Australia, the economic impacts of doing so would be catastrophic.

The border security question should then be how can the integrity of borders be managed effectively and efficiently? What level of residual risk is acceptable?

The introduction of the Australian Border Force has involved a focus on strengthening Australia's border security. The scale of the change involved in creating the portfolio ensures that the real improvements won't be fully mature for several years. In the meantime, there's a possibility of a widening gap between increased border transactions and border security capabilities.

So how can these be addressed?

Australia's border is a busy place. Even with the creation of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, jurisdictional overlaps between Australian Border Force, national security, law enforcement and regulatory functions need to be resolved.

Border security strategy in Australia is as much about collaboration, cooperation and integration as it is about building a security system. So how will the Australian Border Force ensure that their work is differentiated but also integrated with and complementary to other international and domestic enforcement work?

Since the turn of the century, there's been a growing realisation in some ASEAN states' policy circles that the region is now entering a period of increased resource scarcity. In the approaching era of regional natural resource scarcity, we must be able to secure our natural resources to ensure both their sustainable exploitation and access to appropriate royalties.

What impact will increased resource scarcity in ASEAN have on Australia's border security?

For the private sector, the Australian border has almost boundless economic opportunities. With increasing threats, the globalisation of value chains, and the exponential growth in border transactions, it's an appropriate time to explore private sector responsibilities for security before, at, and after the border.

Effective border security allows for the seamless, legitimate movement of people and goods across Australia's borders, which is critical to enhancing trade, travel, and migration. The provision of border security involves far more than creating a capability focused solely on keeping our borders secure from potential terrorists, irregular migrants and illicit contraband.

The risk that a securitised Australian border will have substantial negative economic impacts is real. So it's an appropriate time for increased public policy discussions on border security.