Australia’s north needs a reserve police force

Each of Australia’s border security domains presents unique threats and operating challenges. Whether searching for illicit drugs in Sydney’s mail centre, processing passenger arrivals at Melbourne’s international airport or inspecting shipping containers in Fremantle, the job is difficult. For the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force, the law enforcement challenge in Australia’s north is all about the tyranny of distance.

Since 2016, the ABF, through its Maritime Border Command, has created a ‘ring of steel’ around Australia’s northern waters. Primarily focused on blocking people smugglers, the command’s officers, supported by military and civil maritime-surveillance capabilities, have made a substantial contribution to thwarting other maritime crimes like illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. But they haven’t stopped all crime.

As Australia’s maritime domain awareness and response capabilities have improved, the onshore and nearshore eyes, ears and muscle in Australia’s north have been wasting away.

Over the past century, Australians living in the north have played critical civil defence roles through coastwatch programs (see here and here), community reporting networks and membership in regional force surveillance units.

In 1988, Headquarters Northern Command (HQ NORCOM) assumed responsibility for planning, practising and conducting surveillance, reconnaissance, protection and civil support operations from north of 19˚ south in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the Kimberley and Pilbara districts of Western Australia. For more than two decades, NORCOM played a central role in coordinating support for whole-of-government efforts to prevent illegal activities relating to fisheries, immigration and customs. Today, it performs a much more administrative role.

Over the past decade, regional surveillance capabilities provided by the North-West Mobile Force, the 51st Battalion Far North Queensland Regiment and the Pilbara Regiment have degraded, which has been reflected in their much-reduced availability to support ABF operational activities.

Both the AFP and the ABF have modest offices in Cairns and Darwin. While their officers are highly trained, there aren’t many and yet they are responsible for some of the world’s largest law enforcement operating areas.

Northern Australia’s vastness creates three problems for ABF and AFP decision-makers. First, they need eyes and ears in communities spread across Western Australian, the Northern Territory and Queensland. These eyes and ears need to include citizens who are ready and willing to report unusual behaviour. And they need a mechanism for reporting their observations.

Second, both organisations need an enhanced capability in northern Australia to undertake covert surveillance of suspicious activity on and near the coast.

Finally, both the AFP and ABF need to be able to rapidly scale up the deployment of officers to respond to criminal activity in some of Australia’s most remote locations.

An obvious answer to these problems could be reinvesting in regional force surveillance units and their community reporting networks. However, the Department of Home Affairs, and more specifically the ABF, have already been heavily criticised for ‘militarising’ Australia’s borders over recent years. The prospect of having soldiers sworn in as special constables to perform community policing or law enforcement operations in Australia’s north is unlikely to draw much public support.

A far more attractive option is for the ABF and AFP to develop an auxiliary force or police reserve in Australia’s north.

Since 1992, the NT government has operated a police auxiliary scheme to fill communication and frontline support roles in its police force. While not without training, these auxiliary police perform roles that are unable to be undertaken by public servants but don’t require a fully qualified police officer. A Commonwealth scheme could build on these successes, by expanding the scope of work of auxiliary police officers.

Such a capability could also draw inspiration from the Indigenous ranger programs funded by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Indigenous ranger scheme was established in 2007 through the federal environment department’s Working on Country program. Today it supports Indigenous people in combining traditional knowledge with conservation training to protect and manage their land, sea and culture. In addition to its environmental, biosecurity and heritage benefits, the program has created more than 2,200 jobs.

A combined ABF and AFP part-time auxiliary force, composed of small detachments across Australia’s north, could be used to establish a civil reporting network. This network could then provide a mechanism for reporting suspicious behaviour to state and territory police forces as well as the ABF and AFP in Darwin.

Under certain conditions, and with appropriate training, the auxiliary force could also be tasked to undertake surveillance patrols or specific covert surveillance operations. With higher levels of training, auxiliary officers could directly support law enforcement operations, or perhaps even act as a rapid first-response capability. Just as importantly, such a program would generate a wide range of community advantages, including job opportunities in areas with high levels of unemployment.

Police auxiliary programs have been operating in Canada since 1960. These programs are used, with great success, to supplement police forces with additional staffing, especially in isolated communities in the Arctic Circle.

There is more at stake here than the establishment of a new capability. There’s a broader opportunity for Home Affairs to further define the north’s role in Australian security. Through better whole-of-government coordination, improvements can be made in basing, logistics, domain awareness, and command-and-control structures. There’s also an opportunity for Home Affairs and its portfolio agencies to generate social and economic benefits for communities right across the north of Australia.