Because of the structure of the Australian Federation, much of the day-to-day battle against COVID-19 has been left to the individual states.  While quite successful by world standards, there is room for improvement because – as the epidemiologists assure us – it is only a matter of time before the next pandemic hits.  Many countries in the Asian region have done well – especially Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore – because they received a big fright in 2003 with the SARS outbreak and have put far more rigorous whole of Government public health measures in place as a consequence.

As has become the norm with domestic crises, the ADF has been reasonably quick providing around 1,500 personnel to help with tasks such as contact tracing and quarantine efforts.  But there is another Federal Government agency answering to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton that seems to be under-utilised. They are not the border agency, they are not the border police – they are the Australian Border Force, with matching smart black uniforms and guns.

A major task of Border Force has been policing international travel – particularly at airports – but since the number of people travelling to and from our shores has been reduced to a tiny fraction of what it once was, presumably some of this cadre of more than 5,000 trained officers could be made available for other tasks.  If they can protect Australia’s international borders, why not redeploy them to protect the country’s internal ones between states?  One assumes that overworked police forces would welcome the help – just as they have welcomed the assistance of the ADF.

For readers concerned about jurisdictions, cast your mind back to 28 August 2015 – not long after the creation of Border Force – and Operation Fortitude.  This was a plan to deploy ABF personnel in Melbourne to undertake random visa checks on suspicious looking people – although to be fair the organisation said those targeted would not be selected randomly and was unable to explain the finer points of how it would work. After a public outcry, Operation Fortitude was cancelled.

All but the most xenophobic amongst us would surely concede that we now face a far greater danger from the spread of COVID-19 than we do from people overstaying their visas.  If the concept was good enough for the Federal Government in 2015, why not deploy Border Force agents to places such as train stations and bus stops where they could make a positive contribution by policing mask wearing and social distancing?

As for the view of Border Force itself, a spokesperson said:

  • The work carried out by the ABF has not stopped as a result of COVID-19. Our borders remain strong. It is business as usual when it comes to detecting illicit substances, stopping illegal imports and preventing worker exploitation.
  • As a result of the border measures put in place because of COVID- 19, we have seen a downturn in the number of passenger arrivals at our airports. That means we have even more ABF staff available to inspect goods coming in through our ports and mail centre.
  • Containers are still coming into Australian with goods that the country relies on. We are keeping the economy moving as much as possible, but at the same time, we are committed to ensuring our borders remain strong.

Returning to the role of the ADF, as commendable as that has been, we are still of the view outlined in October that use should be made of major Defence bases such as Laverton in Melbourne and Richmond on the outskirts of Sydney to quarantine Australians returning home.

These facilities are large, secure and can accommodate thousands of additional people – particularly if they only have to stay there for a fortnight.  While far from luxurious, it seems likely that people will be prepared to put up with a minor level of discomfort as long as they can come home.  If Defence wanted to house people on a cost recovery basis that would be fine – after all, it is still likely to be less expensive than staying in a hotel in the CBD.

(Main Photo: (L-R) Commander of the Defence COVID-19 task force Rear Admiral Robert Plath, RAN, met with the South Australia Police Commissioner Grant Stevens during his visit to South Australia.


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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters. After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. You are kidding right? RAAF Bases Laverton (actually RAAF Base Williams (Laverton) and Richmond being able to accommodate thousands? You would be lucky to be able to accommodate anymore than a couple of hundred at Richmond in what would be described as decrepit transit accommodation and Laverton maybe a dozen or so. The majority of accommodation at Laverton has been demolished and the standard at Richmond – I will not go there! You would expect people to stay in non-airconditioned accommodation in Summer?Communal showers/toilets, no TV or any other form of entertainment unless brought with the individual and what of meals? There is no longer RAAF Cooks with everything under contract, how would the logistics wor5k, who would deliver meals to the accommodation? What of medical facilities, at best the local ADF medical facility is only suitable for triage and would have limited ability for quarantine.

    • No, I’m not kidding. I’ve stayed on base at Richmond (also Williamtown) – admittedly several years ago – and the standard was crappy, but survivable. What we are talking about here is being able to put up desperate Australians currently stuck overseas and coming up with a solution to supplement hotel quarantine. They only have to stay there for 2 weeks – hardly a lifetime of misery. And yes I certainly expect people to stay in non-airconditioned facilities because a) the medical advice tells us that’s a good thing and b) what’s wrong with a fan? No tv? Give me a break. These days everyone has a phone and if not they can do it the old fashioned way and read a book. However, I do agree that the issue of the communal bathrooms is something that would need to be addressed. Regarding catering and medical facilities – the bases are on the edge of major cities. Truck in some pizzas and some Thai take away. What we are talking about here is doing something to speed up the process of bringing Australians home. Describe accurately what is on offer and if they turn their noses up, fine. I just know that if I had been stuck somewhere for a year and was given the choice of either staying on base for 2 weeks or not coming home, I would jump at the chance.

  2. You seem to miss the fact that a great many returning passengers expect a certain standard of accommodation and would be more than happy to raise these issues through the media which would be more than happy to carry the ‘flag’ accusing the authorities of placing Australians in sub standard accommodation etc. A great many of these Australians have not been ‘stuck’ as you mention, they are expats who have been employed overseas in jobs that have been lost due Covid and now they wish to return back to Australia hence the expectation of a certain level of accommodation and services. Two weeks on Pizzas and Thai takeaway will not cut it. They were given the option of returning early in 2020.hence the expectation of a certain level of accommodation. As for Williamtown, great idea to place families in accommodation subject to extremely high levels of noise. Australia does not have vast Defence bases with rows upon rows of empty accommodation blocks.

  3. Why do you believe that “a great many returning passengers expect a certain standard of accommodation”? That’s not at all the impression that I have received – but if you have some evidence please feel to share it. My suggestion is based on the assumption that most people are desperate to get back and would happily put up with 2 weeks of relative discomfort. OK – I take your point that there aren’t thousands of places immediately available, but even a few hundred added to the pool might make a difference.

  4. One only has to hear the comments out of the medi hotels such as – prison, four walls of nothing, going crazy, etc etc and this is from 3 and 4* accommodation of a standard so far above Transit accommodation that no comparison could be given. A lot of these returning citizens are not backpackers they are returning from well paid employment and expect a certain level of services especially from their country of birth.

  5. Most on base accomodation is single room with shared toilets and showers. No provision for families, couples, carers with elderly relatives..and shared facilities don’t meet infection control standards. And there isn’t much of it these days, very few ADF members live in unless on course or deployment.

    • Could these be supplemented by tents – especially at the moment with relatively mild weather? Again, we are only talking emergency accommodation for 2 weeks at a time. In many parts of the world less fortunate than Australia, millions of people fleeing conflicts live in tent cities for years.


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