Protesters force Border Force off Melbourne's streets

Operation Fortitude plan for Australian Border Force to check visas on Mellbourne's streets this weekend called off after flash protests halted city traffic in central Melbourne. (Vision courtesy ABC News24). 
An operation involving the Australian Border Force that was to target potential visa fraudsters in the heart of Melbourne has been cancelled following a public backlash.
There is a lot of truth to the saying that there is strength in numbers 
The Abbott government is under pressure to explain why the police-led operation including the ABF involved stopping people for visa checks - a measure independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie compared to East Germany's Stasi. 
Immigration Minister Peter Dytton, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg.
Immigration Minister Peter Dytton, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg. Photo: Andrew Meares
For the first time officers from the federal government's new paramilitary unit were to join transport officials and police to target crime among people "travelling to, from and around the CBD", in a measure dubbed Operation Fortitude.
Border officials were to join those from Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff's Office, Taxi Services Commission and Victoria Police on the streets of Melbourne.
Don Smith, ABF Regional Commander for Victoria and Tasmania, said in a press release officers would be positioned "at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with".
Demonstrators protest against Operation Fortitude in Melbourne on Friday afternoon.
Demonstrators protest against Operation Fortitude in Melbourne on Friday afternoon. Photo: Joe Armao
"You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa … if you commit visa fraud you should know it's only a matter of time before you're caught out," he said.
The operation was quickly ridiculed on social media and protesters took to the city's streets.
Following this, a Department of Immigration and Border Protection spokesman said the ABF "does not and will not stop people at random in the streets".
Protesters took to Melbourne's CBD streets.
Protesters took to Melbourne's CBD streets. Photo: Joe Armao
"ABF officers will assist partner agencies by conducting background visa checks on individuals who are referred to us," the spokesman said, adding the operation was being led by Victoria Police.
The ABF "does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity", he said.
Victoria Police released a statement just before 3pm saying the operation had been cancelled.
The Australian Border Force logo.
The Australian Border Force logo. Photo: Supplied
The protesters were seeking to disrupt the launch of the operation, scheduled for 2pm Friday. That too was cancelled.  
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Minister Peter Dutton said he did not direct operational matters.
Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg conceded the initial press release was "clumsily worded", approved by the lower levels of the organisation.
He said the ABF never intended to proactively seek immigration breaches in Melbourne, and his officers were to play a supporting role. 
Mr Quaedvlieg rejected any suggestion Mr Dutton or his office were involved in issuing the press release.
Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Dutton should "come out of hiding" to explain "the shambles that has seen a cross-agency operation compromised and a key government agency left red-faced".
"This has been incredibly badly handled and Peter Dutton needs to immediately come clean on how this announcement was so botched," Mr Marles said.
"Who sanctioned this announcement being made, what was its purpose, who called for its retraction and who is responsible for compromising this operation?" 
Mr Wilkie welcomed the decision to cancel the operation, but said the government had "shown its hand" by planning it.
"Joseph Stalin would be proud of Tony Abbott. Just as East Germany's Stasi would be delighted with the Australian Border Force. Why even General Pinochet would be impressed," he said.
The ABF began in July and combined Customs and Immigration functions. Officers have more powers than former department officials, including the power to detain offenders, carry guns, and gather intelligence.
During the operation on Friday and Saturday night, ABF officials were to conduct "compliance field-work" to promote "a secure and cohesive society" in Melbourne.
Earlier on Friday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten questioned why Operation Fortitude was announced to the media ahead of the blitz, however he said Labor supports efforts to target crime.
"I do hope that any of these actions are done to try and protect Australian laws, to make sure that people are not overstaying their visas, to make sure that temporary guest workers are not being exploited," he said.
Asked if he thought the blitz would damage Melbourne's reputation internationally, he said "no".
As Fairfax Media reported this week, the government spent $10 million on rebranding to create the ABF, including military-style uniforms and thousands of signs at airports and detention centres to create a fresh, hardline image. 
Some $6.3 million was spent kitting out 4500 ABF officials with new uniforms, insignia, name badges, buttons and safety helmets.

Before the operation was cancelled, Victoria Police Transit and Public Safety Command Acting Superintendent Campbell Mill said the group would work "in the best interests of Melbournians [sic]".

"There is a lot of truth to the saying that there is strength in numbers," he said.

"While we are all separate organisations we all have something in common – a responsibility to keep our community safe. In order to do that we need to ensure that people are behaving appropriately."