21.07.2017

Department of Home Affairs gets a lukewarm reception


Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to create a new Department of Home Affairs has received a lukewarm reception from those with some expertise in the matter. The commentary ranges from the negative through the agnostic to the cautiously supportive, but there are few examples of strong and effusive praise to be found.

Former Department of Defence secretary Dennis Richardson, for example, was asked about the idea this week in an hour-long discussion with the Lowy Institute’s executive director Michael Fullilove. In typical style, his reaction was mild.

“I’m fairly agnostic in respect of that,” says Richardson. “I think its difficult to criticise. Equally, I think its difficult to proclaim it as some great advance forward.”

“We all forget that up until the election of 2013, ASIO, the AFP, AUSTRAC, the Crime Commission and Customs were all in the one portfolio — they were all in the Attorney-General’s portfolio. We forget that.

“What is being added in Home Affairs is Immigration, and there are probably some marginal benefits to be gained with Immigration and the intelligence communities and law enforcement working closer together.”

But he thinks it is important to bear in mind that these are independent statutory organisations that have co-operated successfully for a long time.

“ASIO and the AFP have been in the one portfolio for well over 20 years, so you’re not doing anything new in respect of ASIO and the AFP working more closely together.

“Clearly, the special powers that ASIO has means that it must be accountable to an elected official, not to an unelected official, and if you were to seek to give the secretary of the new department some authority in respect of the AFP and ASIO and the like, I think … you’d have to change legislation and secondly, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is that an appropriate role for an unelected official to have?'”

Finally, he added that ASIO’s use of its covert powers has always been authorised by the Attorney-General, and if the Minister for Home Affairs assumed that role or some aspect of that role, it could be managed but would be the bigger issue, compared to any bureaucratic consolidation. The rest of the discussion is on Soundcloud:

As Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott has said he was advised against “the kind of massive bureaucratic change that the Prime Minister has in mind” but conceded the advice may have changed since then, while the presumptive Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton awkwardly contradicted him.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst John Coyne says it’s too early to tell what the new arrangements will bring but thinks they could be good news for law enforcement agencies, as long as Dutton respects the importance of independence and accountability in that area.

His APSI colleague Peter Jennings said the decision was largely a “sensible step” but appears to have happened without much in the way of obvious process, speaking with political journalist Michelle Grattan from The Conversation.

Lumping immigration in with domestic national security could amount to a downgrading of the portfolio, according to Macquarie University lecturer Adele Garnier, writing in the same publication:

“The newest name change, and its close association with the British model by Turnbull, appears as a symbolic marginalisation of the immigration portfolio. It is not clear yet whether an agency under a Home Affairs “super-ministry” will carry “immigration” in its name. …

“The creeping invisibility of the immigration portfolio comes as the government is overseeing major changes to immigration policy, and is increasingly using the rhetoric of putting Australians first.”

Human rights lawyer Amy Maguire raises concerns that the change is likely to spell more bad news for Australia’s reputation with regard to human rights, which has already suffered considerably in recent years due to offshore detention of asylum seekers.

UK correspondents from Fairfax and the ABC have also both found British commentators perplexed by the idea that Australia wants to copy the UK Home Office, which has evolved over more than 200 years and has been through plenty of changes and criticisms.

This is only a few of the takes around now and there’ll certainly be more to come.