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Sea Fence

Border Force shortfalls unfairly pinned on a king without a kingdom

By John Coyne

The reputation of the Australian Border Force has been struck another blow with the leaking of Defence Department documents revealing that it can not meet its sea patrol targets and Defence has had to pick up the slack.

According to reports in The Herald and The Age, this is drawing Defence resources away from important joint maritime counter-terrorism and fisheries operations with regional partners.

The ABF has been quick to respond that its shortfall wasn’t due to budget cuts but "the increasing cost of fuel, wages and maintenance that continue to impact budget considerations".

This all begs the question of what’s wrong with the ABF’s patrol fleet, and government and the media will once again look to the ABF’s commissioner, Michael Outram, for answers. It may pass the notice of many that Outram is a king without a kingdom.

The Commissioner has no staff. ABF officers are employed by the Department of Home Affairs under the Public Service Act. They’re then transferred from the Home Affairs Department to the ABF commissioner who uses his powers under the Australian Border Force Act to swear the public servants in as ABF officers. But there should be no doubt that the workforce is owned by the Home Affairs secretary.

The commissioner also has no human resource department: that role is performed by Home Affairs. Unlike his colleagues in the Australian Federal Police, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) or the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, he doesn’t have direct control of strategic workforce planning. Even internal affairs investigations are handled by the Home Affairs Department.

When it comes to capability development issues like the maintenance of the ABF’s Cape Class Patrol Boat fleet, the story is much the same. The ABF operates the fleet, and the commissioner has input, but the bigger strategic responsibilities in terms of finance reside with Home Affairs.

Interestingly, the ABF is the only law enforcement agency in Australia that doesn’t have its own intelligence staff and capabilities. These are also centrally controlled by Home Affairs.

All of these arrangements were first put in place when Home Affairs’ predecessor, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was formed. Sharing HR, finance, integrity and intelligence services would create efficiencies and save money, but that wasn’t the only driver.

When it comes to the financial management of the ABF, Home Affairs holds all of the purse strings. Unlike any of the other Home Affairs portfolio agencies, Outram has no Public Governance Performance and Accountability Act 2013 accountable authority. So he is the head of the ABF, but for the application of the Commonwealth’s finance law, he is an official of the Department of Home Affairs.

So, answering the question of who is responsible for the ABF’s failure to achieve its sea patrol targets or managing the budgets for the patrol boats is unnecessarily complex.

The simplest solution to avoid such uncertainty in the future is for the government to delegate the ABF commissioner the same statutory independence as the other Home Affairs portfolio agencies’ executives. The ABF’s Commissioner must be afforded greater responsibility for, and control over, the ABF’s corporate functions if he is to be held responsible for its performance. This need not result in any additional costs, as Home Affairs should continue to provide shared services.

Originally published by: Sydney Morning Herald on 12 Mar 2019