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The Pros And Cons Of A Mega Department Of Homeland Security

By John Coyne

If Monday's rumors are true, in the coming weeks Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to mediate one hell of a cabinet fight over the case for an Australian Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Despite the fact that the Abbott-era 'mega department' thinking is passé, and Border Force is politically risky, there's still plenty of steam behind the idea of merging ASIO, the AFP and Border Force into one super security department.

Both the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, and the architect of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, have both been championing the DHS idea for some time.

For Turnbull and Dutton, there's no shortage of opposition to an Australian DHS. The various domestic security agency heads, at least according to what's on the public record, remain opposed to the idea. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has called it unnecessary, and Foreign Minister Julia Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis hate the idea.

Australia's domestic security arrangements could benefit from a centralised and focused policy department that coordinates our national domestic security strategies.

Australia's operational counter terrorism success clearly demonstrates that, to date, our policy settings are working. So little surprise that for most of this year Turnbull's attitude to DHS has been 'wait and see'.

In early January, not wanting to alienate Dutton and the coalitions other conservatives, Turnbull told us he'd hold off on making a decision until he had received the findings of the 2017 Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community.

The buzz in Canberra is that the PM received this report last week, and its findings will be announced later this week. The only problem here is that the terms of referenceoffered no scope for the authors, Mr Michael L'Estrange AO and Mr Stephen Merchant PSM, to make qualified comments or recommendations for, or against, a DHS.

In mid-January the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Executive Director, Peter Jennings, provided a strong argument against bringing 'together the AFP, ASIO and Australian Border Force into one agency, where they could better engage, communicate and share information to tackle terror threats' on the basis that, when it comes to counter terrorism, 'the system isn't broken'.

But there's far more to homeland security than CT. Australia's strategies and policies for dealing with transnational serious and organised crime (TSOC) and illicit drugs don't have anywhere near the same level of coordination or success.

In October 2015 Australia's National Ice Taskforce told us as much when it said 'despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies, the market for ice remains strong. Ice is still easy to get and its price remains stable'. In June 2016 the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) estimated that serious and organised crime cost Australia $36 billion in FY 2013–14, which hardly supports the conclusion that things are working.

It might take five to 10 years before the full potential of an Australian DHS could be fully realised.

While our law enforcement agencies, including the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF), have achieved outstanding operational results, the fact remains that the government's policy intent of reducing the availability of illicit drugs and impact of organised crime aren't being achieved. And ABF, ACIC and AFP key performance measures indicate that this can be attributed to policy and strategy settings rather than operational efforts.

While CT and cybersecurity garner a great deal of whole-of-government coordination, the same cannot be said for TSOC and illicit drug policy, starting with their representation in cabinet and other relevant committees. The fact that the minister responsible for law enforcement and organised crime, the Justice Minister, is a junior member of cabinet, without membership of the National Security Committee is particularly telling.

When it comes to the Commonwealth's domestic security response to intelligence sharing on organised crime, the news is all bad. Within the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission there are three separate task forces for fusing and sharing intelligence on organised crime: Australian Gangs Intelligence Coordination CentreNational Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre and National Taskforce Morpheus. Then within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection we have the Border Intelligence Fusion Centre. And finally the AFP has remodelled its intelligence function to enhance the 'identification of convergences and vulnerabilities in criminal activity across investigations to streamline targeting of organised criminals'. While each serves a specific function, we can do better.

A DHS might just be what's needed in terms of reviewing domestic security issues, law enforcement and TSOC policy settings. Australia's domestic security arrangements could benefit from a centralised and focused policy department that coordinates our national domestic security strategies.

If Turnbull can get DHS through his cabinet, someone is going to have to fill in the details on what an Australian DHS looks like, and does.

The changes associated with forming a DHS would, at the very least, require a significant and sustained financial commitment and policy patience. It might take five to 10 years before the full potential of an Australian DHS could be fully realised.

Originally published by: The Huffington Post on 17 Jul 2017