Tapping Fortress Australia: Priti Patel’s Border Force Review

When in opposition, Alexander Downer, destined to become Australia’s longest serving foreign minister in the conservative government of John Howard, was easy to savage.  The Australian Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was particularly keen to skewer an establishment individual prone to donning fishnet stockings and affecting a plummy disposition.  Never, he suggested, had there been a more conceited piece of fairy floss ever put on a stick.

During the Howard years, Downer served in the role of a position that has become all but irrelevant, outsourced as it is to the US State Department and the fossil fuel lobby.  It was during that time that Australia supercharged its draconian approach to refugees and border security, repelling naval arrivals and creating a network of concentration camps that has since been marketed to the world.  The UK Home Affairs Minister Priti Patel is positively potty for it but has only managed to adopt aspects of the “Australian model”, including the relocation of arrivals to offshore facilities and co-opting the Royal Navy in an intercepting role.

Efforts to use third countries to process asylum claims have been frustrated, though Patel has opted for a legislative route in stymieing the process and limiting the settlement rights of unwanted migrants.  While she has authorised the use of push backs on paper, these have yet to take place and are the subject of a legal challenge by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and charity, Care4Calais.

The government of Boris Johnson has made something of a habit in mining the old quarry of Australian conservative politics.  Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was approved for a role as trade advisor for Global Britain, an appointment which did not sit well with critics worried that a reactionary dinosaur had been brought into the fold.  With Abbott offering advice, Global Britain risked becoming a Nostalgic Britannia of pink gins and wallahs, Union Jack flying high.

Downer, for his part, has settled into the soft furnishings of British public life, occupying the role of High Commissioner for some years, becoming a presence around Australia House and King’s College, London as founding chairman of the international school of government.  Evidently, he is regarded as very clubbable, a member of the Royal Over-Seas League and chairman of trustees at the right wing think tank, Policy Exchange.

Of late, he has been tapped to undertake a review of Britain’s border forces, a task he is likely to relish.  In this field, reform can only mean a few things: harsher policies, hardened feelings, and the tweaking, if not total circumvention, of international law.  The number of migrants attempting to make the crossing from France in 2021 was estimated to be 28,431.  In 2020, it was 8,417.  There are fears in the Home Office that the number could reach 65,000.  A siege mentality has well and truly seeded.

A statement from the Home Office noted Patel’s commissioning of “a wide-ranging, independent review of our Border Force to assess its structure, powers, funding and priorities to ensure it can keep pace with rapidly evolving threats and continue to protect the border, maintain security and prevent illegal migration.”

Patel doesn’t stoop to considering the right to asylum, or the safety and welfare of those making the crossing.  It’s all security and border protection.  “Since Border Force was set up in 2011, its remit has grown to meet the changing border threats we face, and in recent years has supported delivery of the government’s Brexit commitments and COVID-19 measures.”

According to statements from the UK government, Downer was “delighted” to be leading the review, one mislabelled as independent.  “As an independent reviewer, I plan to lead a review that is robust, evidence-based and outcome-orientated.”

Downer is unlikely to be troubled by the evidence.  For him, the outcomes are already determined and bound to offer Patel comfort.  The clue was in a piece written for the Daily Mail last September openly praising Patel’s efforts.  Despite the Home Secretary being “widely ridiculed on both sides of the Channel … I know that a ‘push-back’ policy can work.”  Never one for the finer details, the Australian suggested a sly approach verging on deception.  “My advice to Ms Patel would be to introduce a ‘push-back’ policy without fanfare, and to keep the French informed on a need-to-know basis only”.

The views of those at the Policy Exchange think tank are also shot through with such presumption. In a report released on February 16, the authors consider the need for a “Plan B” which would involve removing people attempting to enter the UK on small craft “to a location outside the UK – whether the Channel Islands, Sovereign Bases in Cyprus or Ascension Island – where their asylum claims would be considered.”  Ideally, “Plan A” would involve the French shouldering the responsibility of preventing the arrivals in the first place.

Downer’ anti-refugee resume is long, though he seems to have been overly credited with the copyright of the original Pacific Solution implemented by the Howard government from 2001.  The same goes for the general policy of turning vessels laden with asylum seekers and refugees back to Indonesia and potential watery graves.  That said, he was an important figure in leading negotiations with countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea, both becoming indispensably bribed in aiding Canberra’s sadistic solution.

This is enough to have the PCS worried.  One spokesperson noted Downer’s role as “a prime architect of Australia’s inhumane immigration policy” claiming that his recent support for the push back solution made “him a wholly inappropriate choice to lead this review”.  General Secretary Mark Serwotka has also expressed his opposition to any pushback policy “on moral and humanitarian grounds, and we will not rule out industrial action to prevent it being carried out.”

The one saving grace in this needless review with pre-determined findings is the difficulty Britain faces in implementing any turnback policy that does not violate international law.  French officials are incessant in reminding their British counterparts about that fact.  And without French cooperation in this endeavour, any proposed harshness will be mitigated.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com