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The Border Force strike is an unacceptable risk to airport security during the school holidays

By John Coyne

Monday saw the start of the Community and Public Sector Union's two weeks of intermittent rolling Border Force strikes at international airports. The random and rolling nature of these half-hour stoppages will dramatically restrict the Border Force executive's capacity to mitigate the impacts of the strike.

Without doubt the CPSU's industrial action is going to negatively impact on many international travellers over the next two weeks. But the greater concern for all Australians should be the strong possibility that these actions will weaken our frontline border security defences against such threats as organised crime and terrorism.

In light of this risk, it's time for the Turnbull government to consider whether the role of the ABF is of such importance to domestic and national security – like that of the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police – that its members should be prevented from being able to take protected industrial action.

In July last year, the new operational enforcement arm of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection – the ABF – was stood up. This was no simple departmental merger, but a deliberate 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 formation of the ABF centralised border control and securitised our border.

For almost three years, DIBP and ABF staff have been in dispute over pay and conditions. There is a serious industrial problem at the heart of this industrial relations mess.

The CPSU has sought to break the current negotiation deadlock with a strategy involving protected industrial action. The CPSU's strategy is trying to force the Turnbull government to change its strict conditions for enterprise bargaining. If unsuccessful, the CPSU will be in the position to argue further – using the impacts of its industrial action as evidence – that the economic harm of this industrial dispute is such that the Fair Work Commission should intervene and force both parties into arbitration.

In the meantime, this industrial action is having very substantive impacts on many Australians. The dates of this industrial action coincide with the Australian spring school holidays. Imagine the angst passengers in the departure or arrival halls of our international airports will experience as they watch ABF staff walk away from their posts. For those travellers with children this angst will no doubt give way to anger rather quickly.

Traveller angst and anger is barely comparable to the troubling national and domestic security implications of this industrial action. Put simply, CPSU industrial action doesn't slow core border security functions, but suffocates them and creates an operating environment subject to higher than normal risk of staff errors. These errors increase the possibility of a range of potentialities with unacceptable risks.

The consequences of potentially allowing known sex offenders or radicalised foreign fighters to travel are horrendous. Similarly, the increased potential for the trafficking of drugs or weapons into Australia due to targeting errors could have equally dire consequences.

ABF officers are clearly not just public servants with a gun. These officers are our frontline domestic and national security defence. This is a point made clear by the Department and the FWC during two previous efforts by the CPSU to undertake protected industrial action.

In March the CPSU was forced to postpone airport strikes due to the Brussels attacks. At the time the argument presented by the ABF, and accepted by the CPSU, was that strikes following a major terror event could expose travellers to a heightened terror threat.

In April the FWC banned further Border Force strikes for 90 days on national security grounds. More specifically FWC Commissioner Nick Wilson found that the CPSU's evidence "did not persuasively address the matter of how the design and delivery of the protected industrial action impacted upon the ABF's risk profile".

The CPSU's latest protected industrial action highlights further the need to reform the legislative framework for the employment of ABF officers.

One way to address this would be for ABF officers to be employed under an act separate from the Public Service Act 1999. This separate legislative instrument would employ ABF under arrangements similar to those of the AFP, and in doing so could prevent protected industrial action.

In the current complex threat environment, Australia's national and domestic security shouldn't be used as an industrial relations bargaining chip. If the government doesn't introduce industrial reform to the ABF, Australia's border security will continue to be vulnerable.

In the meantime the next two weeks will see the ABF's surge capacity, and our border security frontline slowly suffocated by CPSU industrial action.

Dr John Coyne is the Head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Border Security Program
Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 Sept 2016.

Originally published by: Sydney Morning Herald on 28 Sep 2016