Infernal Queues and Border Patrol: Queuing at Melbourne Airport

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 17.02.2011

Perhaps no obsession is a healthy one, and on arriving in Melbourne airport, we find one in steady operation. While the English are able to queue with a single person, the Australian version is somewhat different. Queues are regarded with a forbidding sense of value here, less a matter of courtesy than a matter of 'fairness.' Line up or be damned.

The series 'Border Patrol' is filming (or so everyone is told), demonstrating yet again the fascination in this country with island fortresses (the immigration debate is permanent and suffocating), control and, allowing the appropriate people within the borders of the state. One of the latest episodes features the following: 'Smelly Czech's with fleas, Italian passports that don't please, and video tapes full of e's!'

Virgo intacta is a fundamental principle - the waters will not be muddied by riffraff, or at the very least riffraff illiterate to the ways of queuing. The key, of course, is the paperwork - with documents, one is a monarch in a kingdom of paper. This, of course is no guarantee for purity. 'It never ceases to amaze me,' comments a viewer of the program on the website, 'how ingenious drug smugglers are. From watching this show, I have learnt some of the sneaky tricks they use'. Let's not forget those canny backpackers, with paperwork neatly ordered, overstaying their visas and visits.

With a degree of muteness, the crowds, including those incorrigible drug smugglers, move inexorably to their destination: the next queue. 'For those who have applied to Smart Gate please move to another queue.' This system, as ever designed to eliminate the length of queues, demonstrates a blind faith in equipment. Register in advance and the computer will dispense with your need to break your back with luggage as you await a human agent to see your passport. Often though, the system features various glitches, thereby increasing the queues. A vital question: Is an incompetent machine less admirable than an incompetent human?

The computer system, on this occasion, is playing tricks with the authorities. An irate applicant storms into yet another queue. 'My flight was not registered for this one. Another wait.' Nor does the system register children, which eliminates families in one fail swoop. And so, we return where we started - in lines that are moving at a rate so slow we might as well crack open the champagne and, well, wait. The only distraction are warnings about heavy penalties for those a bit economical with the truth on whether they did stash away that sexually enhancing ginseng, or perhaps a hot mag with operatic bondage.

From customs, where the snake lines grow, people are greeted by sniffing dogs (cute in appearance but nonetheless instruments of the state). The lines seem to be pregnant, swelling at the exits. 'There is only one exit in operation today,' explains one of the guards, his Labrador by his side awaiting instructions. This is pure bureaucratic genius - at the busiest time of the day, with numerous flights discharging their human cargo, the number of exits diminishes.

The queue is, fundamentally, nonsense. It is humanity's attempt to impose order on what is, essentially, a chaotic situation. We can't have a rush (instinctive in us), so we need to have an ordered 'process'. The obsession proceeds to drain us, reducing us to tragicomic stand-ins in a Kafka show. There is nothing worse than seeing nondescript lines of people heading to their target. Variety is lost, the anarchy of the high road banished.

The act is also exhausting. The still human is a dead human. Entropy exerts its inevitable force, as it racks the body. By the time you reach the taxi rank, with one's back sore from the long-haul flight, the queue has lost all fascination and mystique. 'Sorry sir,' says the Bangladeshi eager to take his customer the next port of call. 'We will have to queue at the petrol station…'

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