Home Affairs Ministry: a commonwealth of ideas, not empire of rules

Image: Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Image: Department of Immigration and Border Protection

By Dr Anthony Bergin

Peter Dutton is now Australia’s chief security officer. The Home Affairs Department under Dutton is the Turnbull government’s latest national security creation. It opened for business on Wednesday.

The mega-department will add new policy and strategy functions to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, as well as staff related to transport security and emergency management to its current operations such as processing visas and checking mail and cargo.

The secretary of the new department, Mike Pezzullo, has said he envisions Home Affairs will reach into just about every area of the Australian economy and society.

The reorganisation of the country’s national security functions into one coherent picture will require clear-sighted brushstrokes. The new department will certainly face challenges in knitting together a very diverse range of functions into one team.

Dutton’s portfolio has at its apex the new department that includes parts of the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Home Affairs will act as a portfolio agency for ASIO, the AFP, the Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC and the Office of Transport Security.

Operational strengths

The new department will obviously need to work with other agencies outside the new portfolio when required, for example the Department of Health in the event of a pandemic.

It’s to be hoped that the new department will preserve the operational strengths and independence of our frontline agencies, but improve the strategic policy planning and coordination in areas of national security, including counterterrorism and the control of serious and organised crime.

The Home Affairs portfolio will – for the first time – have a senior member of Cabinet who will be able to give 100 per cent of his or her time to the domestic aspects of national security. That will be very welcome to agencies like the federal police.

The difficulty will be developing the structure and governance arrangements for the Home Affairs portfolio. ASIO, the AFP, the ABF, the ACIC and AUSTRAC remain statutory authorities: they’ll retain authority for their own management, mandated by existing legislation.

Importantly, the Prime Minister has committed himself to the agencies’ independence and indicated that they will report directly to the Home Affairs minister. That should placate those who have already tried to deploy scare tactics about some “mega-department” monster being created.

Turnbull has sensibly described Home Affairs as a “federation” of border and security agencies. Pezzullo has said he wants a “commonwealth of ideas” not an “empire of rules”.

Risk aversion

But bureaucratic rivalries and risk aversion may serve to undermine the grand vision. To produce the unity of strategy, priorities and management in national security policy that’s required, advice to and directions from Dutton will need to reflect the collective positions of the agencies constituting the new portfolio.

Governance arrangements should support coordination with the dispersed interests encompassed by national security, especially with the states and territories.

It’s envisaged that Home Affairs portfolio agencies will seek to embed themselves into supply chains, airport exit and entry, and the cruise ship industry to the benefit of national security. The aim is to create a public-private partnership model between Home Affairs and its component agencies and virtually every sector of the economy.

This reorganisation is long overdue. But improved efficiency won’t happen by itself.

Clear-sighted decision-making and effective implementation will be needed before Home Affairs can be declared a success. At the least, with the decision to establish the new portfolio and department, an important start has been made.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.


Home Affairs Ministry: a commonwealth of ideas, not empire of rules

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