18.07.2017

Home Affairs agencies will retain statutory independence: Turnbull


A super-ministry of Home Affairs will be formed to take over responsibility for key homeland security agencies including the Australia Federal Police, Border Force, ASIO and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced the current Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton will take over the new portfolio. A new Office of National Intelligence led by a director-general of national intelligence will also be established to play a co-ordinating role for the whole Australian Intelligence Community.

In announcing the change, Turnbull said a better structure was needed to meet the challenge of the times, and the increasingly complex security environment.

By having the AFP, Border Force and ASIO reporting to a single minister, instead of multiple ministers with different portfolio responsibilities, the government seeks to enhance cooperation among the key agencies responsible for providing homeland security.

The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Office of Transport Security will also become Home Affairs agencies, all of which will be supported by a Department of Home Affairs that will include Immigration and “oversee policy and strategic planning and the coordination of the operational response to the threats we face”, according to the Prime Minister.

“This is driven by operational logic. You have a domestic security challenge which gets greater all the time. My job as PM and our jobs as ministers is to keep Australia safe. We have the best agencies in the world, we want them to work closely together,” said Turnbull. But, he added, each agency moved would retain its statutory independence.

The PM said his government would also “transform the Australian Signals Directorate into a statutory agency within the Defence portfolio” shortly after tasking it with going after cyber criminals.

Other security and intelligence agencies, such as ASIS, ONA, DIO and AGO, were not mentioned during the media conference.

Turnbull repeated his comments on Monday that Australia’s domestic security agencies were an outstanding operation, but these changes would be “improving and optimising” the existing arrangements.

Attorney-General to gain monitoring agencies

In describing the new arrangements, Attorney-General George Brandis described the arrangement as being “familiar and established”, analogous to the United Kingdom’s Home Office.

The Attorney-General, which loses two of the portfolio’s most prominent agencies, will maintain legal oversight of the super-ministry. A new seat in cabinet will be added for the super minister with direct responsibility for domestic national security measures.

The Attorney-General’s portfolio will incorporate the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. The Prime Minister says the government will also consider measures to strengthen the operation of both roles. In addition, the Attorney-General’s portfolio will house the Commonwealth Ombudsman — previously in PM&C — and remains an independent statutory body.

Turnbull added that the changes will better define the role of the Attorney-General, “as the Minister for integrity and rule of law, and it will ensure it will have at the cabinet table, a senior minister who is responsible for those agencies that are directly responsible for our domestic national security measures.”

Review findings yet to be released

The move towards a security super-ministry, an idea floated for more than a decade and rejected until today, had been greeted with near-universal scepticism from the Australian media and security community.

An intelligence funding review by former DFAT boss Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant was handed to the government this month, and is reportedly not supportive of a Home Office super-ministry, instead preferring an Office of National Intelligence inside the Prime Minister’s portfolio.

Today, the Prime Minister said the review concluded that Australia’s intelligence agencies are highly capable and staffed by skilled officers, and also “made many important recommendations to transform these agencies into a world-class intelligence community.” These recommendations have yet to be released publicly and no further comment was made about whether the changes announced were in keeping with the review’s recommendations.

Administrative Arrangement Orders, detailing the exact split of statutory bodies and legislative oversight, are yet to be issued. The shift is expected to be finalised by June 2018.

Immigration and Border Protection secretary Mike Pezzullo is widely expected to be moved with Dutton from DIBP to Home Affairs, but no announcement has been made. Nor has there been an announcement on the next secretary of the Department of Defence to replace Dennis Richardson who retired earlier this year.

Update: The unclassified 2017 Independent Intelligence Review has subsequently been published. More to come…