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Turnbull - Home Affairs announcement

Domestic security shakeup

By John Coyne

On the 17th and 18th of July this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made two different announcements, on three separate issues that are set to shake up Australia’s domestic security arrangements for many years to come. While there has been plenty of excitement about these changes, much needs to be done before they can be implemented let alone considered a success.

On the 17th of July, Prime Minister Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne announced a raft of proposed changes to the arrangements for the deployment of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in response to terrorism. Prime Minister Turnbull's proposed changes will provide some counter-terrorism (CT) decision makers with several new options. The proposal to simplify the arrangements for ADF call out for domestic terrorism incidents has merit, but is in no way a panacea for domestic terror threats. To be sure the States and Territories’ governments should be closely examining the wider impacts and limitations of the Commonwealth’s proposal.

On the 18th of July Prime Minister Turnbull released unclassified version of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review report authored by national security stalwarts Mr Michael L’Estrange AO and Mr Stephen Merchant PSM. The report’s 23 recommendations cover a lot of ground, but the establishment of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) as a statutory authority within the Prime Minister’s portfolio is likely to see a lot more coordination across the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) which has to be a good outcome for all.

While these announcement were newsworthy enough on their own, it was Prime Minister Turnbull’s announcement regarding the establishment of a Home Affairs Portfolio that represents what could be a once in forty year reform of Australia’s domestic security arrangements. The proposed portfolio, in a broad sense, is to be similar in nature to the United Kingdom’s Home Office arrangements. Our proposed Home Affairs Portfolio will bring together Australia’s immigration, border protection and domestic security agencies.

In a practical sense Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Border Force (ABF), the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Office of Transport Security (OTS) will become federated under a portfolio arrangement. These agencies will then be supported by a central department, created from the existing Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), which will oversee policy and strategic planning and the coordination of operational responses.

While the introduction of the ONI is underpinned by the substantial and independent review of the AIC, the drivers for Prime Minister Turnbull’s decision to establish the Home Affairs Portfolio are far less clear. Even the overarching strategic guidance from Prime Minister Turnbull appears to be contradictory. Although the Turnbull government has acknowledged that the operational agencies like AFP and ASIO will retain their statutory independence, he has also said that the new arrangements will ‘improve the strategic policy planning and coordination’ that guides their activities. It seems that at least some conflict between the operational agencies and the Portfolio’s Department is inevitable. A point made crystal clear when both the AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin and Director General ASIO Duncan Lewis expressed publicly their concern over the Home Affairs arrangements.

Australia’s continued success in disrupting terror plots makes it unlikely that anyone is going to be crafting drastic changes to CT arrangements. But there’s much more to home affairs and domestic security than CT.

By way of example, Australia’s strategies and policies for dealing with transnational serious and organised crime and illicit drugs have nowhere near the same level of coordination or success as those in the CT domain. That becomes clear when you consider the following:

  • In June 2016 the ACIC estimated that serious and organised crime cost Australia $36 billion in 2013–14.
  • Australia’s current national drug strategy is now two years out of date—and the replacement National Drug Strategy 2016–2025 is still only in draft.
  • The ACIC’s latest Illicit Drug Data Report found that, for the most part, illicit drug purity is unchanged and that drugs remain easy to obtain and, in some cases, their street price is dropping not increasing.
  • Australia’s National Organised Crime Response Plan lacks relevance to law enforcement decision-making at operational and tactical levels.

Arguably, a lot of the most dramatic changes that the Home Affairs portfolio brings about will relate to Commonwealth law enforcement structures, policies and strategies. So there is an opportunity for the Home Affairs Minister and his Departmental Secretary to work with its federated partner agencies to develop new whole of government strategies. As the minister responsible for Australia’s national law enforcement strategies, Dutton will encounter more than a few conflicts between state and territory jurisdictional priorities and those of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the resolution of those conflicts, in the form of a clear national law enforcement strategy, is well overdue. In making changes, Home Affairs Minister designate, Peter Dutton, ought to be mindful of the importance of independence and accountability in law enforcement.

Interestingly, the Turnbull government has decided to implement this policy initiative as a change in the machinery of government, delaying the need for legislative amendments. This said, it is likely that in time, the home Affairs changes will require legislative changes that will need to pass through both houses of government. In the absence of substantive justification for such changes it is likely that these kinds of amendments will face a bumpy ride. Until these changes are implemented, the Home Affairs Portfolio’s longevity will be brittle, and particularly vulnerable to changes in the political landscape.

Minister Dutton is well versed in how much time, energy and effort will be required to implement this kind of dynamic change. Minister Dutton has gained plenty of experience in dealing with those kinds of challenges following the creation of the DIBP and the ABF. The secretary of the DIBP, Michael Pezzullo, and the commissioner of the ABF, Roman Quaedvlieg, brought together two very different agencies to achieve both operational and strategic successes. But two years down the track, they still face a long and difficult road in building a new organisational culture. A key lesson learned is that this kind of change may take up to a decade to fully mature.

Prime Minister Turnbull has established three separate taskforces to implement these new initiatives. One task force was established, to review and implement the recommendations from the 2017 Independent intelligence Review. Two further taskforces have been formed to establish the Home Affairs Portfolio: one to coordinate the structural changes, the other the changes in Portfolio operations. With an implementation date of 30 June 2018, Home Affairs planning will need to move at speed.

The final form and function of the new Home Affairs Portfolio, and its operational agencies still remains far from clear. With an election on the horizon for the second half of 2018, fast tracked change seems inevitable. For both the private and public sector there’s likely to be a lot of uncertainty around Australia’s final domestic security arrangements for the next twelve months to two years.

Originally published by: Australian Security magazine on 05 Oct 2017