Saturday, 29 August 2015

Seen It Before

Pic courtesy Betoota Advocate

Yesterday's little frolic in Melbourne's CBD is a symptom of malaise in government.

The regional commander of the newly minted Border Force announced that they were going to be conducting some kind of sweep in the city designed to round up a range of miscreants.

"ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with", said he, ending a sentence with a preposition.

They were going to do this in conjunction with Victoria Police, and the activity was to be called Operation Fortitude.

The targets of the operation were not specifically defined, but the press release made reference to "crime and visa fraud".

The first thing that strikes me as beyond bizarre, is why you would publicise an activity like this in advance, if you were really out to round up miscreants. Surely it must have occurred to the area commander that the targets of the roundup might make themselves absent at the time of the sweep.

It reminds me very much of a phenomenon I personally observed in downtown Saigon last time I was there. At around 9pm one evening I was wandering around the tourist area. As if on some kind of signal, all the illegal street vendors packed up their very portable gear and disappeared. In the next few minutes, a GAZ jeep trundled down the street with two cops, both toting AK47s, aboard.

Five minutes later, the vendors were all back on the street. Obviously, substantial amounts of Vietnamese Dong had changed hands, the vendors had been tipped off, and the accustomed interruption to their illegal activity was observed - a very Vietnamese win-win situation.

A local told me that this was a daily occurrence. "It's all for show", he said.

I reckon Operation Fortitude, as first conceived (probably in Coalition central casting in the depths of the PM's office) was also "All for show".

But I digress.

Even so, my Saigon experience is relevant in that it reminds me that what happens on the surface can be revealing.

On the surface, it is all about the "keeping us safe" narrative, which is, at the moment, averaging about two press conferences per week, and which is inserted into every ministerial doorstop, at least twice (always twice if it's a Tony Abbott doorstop, as he says everything twice).

This divide and rule disease has been a hallmark of Conservative political activity since the days of Bob Menzies. The fear-de- jour is now Islamic terrorism, which has morphed from fear of Communism in the sixties and seventies. Back then, for some of us, at age nineteen, that political activity had pretty disruptive consequences.

Being long in the tooth has its advantages - I've seen it all before.

The technique is elegant in its simplicity. First you find something or someone frightening (in this case Islamic terrorism). Then you hammer home the message that it means we'll all be murdered in our beds unless something is done; a message designed to terrify.

Remember Tampa and the demonising of boat people? That worked a treat.

Next you create some kind of force or entity (in the case the Australian Border Force) and you make sure they have something to do. Superheroes would do, but they're thin on the ground.

In the case of boat people, you also make sure that these activities are clouded in secrecy.

At least the Border Force aren't conscripts.

You kit these people up in sexy dark blue uniforms, and give them lots of media exposure. Make sure they're photographed with cute sniffer dogs - that always goes down a treat. In case some people don't quite get the message, you also increase the number of flags around the PM's podium.

Running an exercise in inner urban Melbourne was all part of the narrative, but it kind of went off the rails a bit because the local commander was obviously not the sharpest tool in the box. He did, after all, end a sentence with a preposition.

But it did give us a peek into the mind of the current PM (or those pulling his strings).

As a footnote, Operation Fortitude was the code name given to a series of deceptions employed by the Allies during the build-up to the 1944 Normandy landings.

Somehow, it is a good fit for the Melbourne exercise - both were deceptions.

The malaise? It's called political paranoia.

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