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More money for security agencies, PM&C recommends

Security agencies should have more money to combat terrorism, a report into Australia’s counter-terrorism machinery recommends, as the Prime Minister warned the “threat is rising at home and abroad”.

The report from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet recommends excluding security agencies from the efficiency dividend, topping up the budgets of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Federal Police, the Office of National Assessments, the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and Customs and Border Protection operations.

It doesn’t recommend major structure changes to the way agencies operate, but the government has agreed to appoint a new national counter terrorism co-ordinator to better manage the logistics of activities between each agency.

On the other recommendations, Tony Abbott says the “government will carefully consider the findings and act as quickly as possible”.

The report says there must be acknowledgement that “we have entered a new, long-term paradigm of heightened terrorism threat with a much more significant ‘home grown’ element”. It notes:

“Every dollar must be spent wisely. We face a new paradigm that demands ever more careful prioritisation. National security agencies must come together seamlessly around shared priorities.

“A restructure or reshuffle of national security agencies is not the answer. But more must be done to strengthen cross-agency co-ordination and leadership.”

It recommends removing the efficiency dividend on all ASIO, ASIS and AFP operations from 2015-16, and ending the application of the efficiency dividend to the ONA and OIGIS. Those agencies would still be subject to the ongoing whole-of-government non-ED efficiency proposals, including the functional and efficiency reviews and efficiencies drawn through the contestability program.

Also, it suggests removing the efficiency dividend from all Australian Customs and Border Protection Service operations that will transition to the merged Department of Immigration and Border Protection, including the Australian Border Force. Final costs are to be agreed with the Department of Finance and a detailed proposal brought to the National Security Committee by June 30.

An alternative proposal would see a 0.5% efficiency dividend applied to ASIO, ASIS and AFP operations, to all ONA and OIGIS funding, and in-principle applying a 0.5% ED to all ACBPS operations that will transition to the new DIBP. Again, final costs would be agreed with Finance after a proposal to the National Security Committee.

In a speech at AFP headquarters in Canberra this morning, Abbott said the report on counter-terrorism machinery “makes a line in the sand”:

“There is always a trade-off between the rights of an individual and the safety of the community. We will never sacrifice our freedoms in order to defend them — but we will not let our enemies exploit our decency either. If Immigration and Border Protection faces a choice to let in or keep out people with security questions over them — we should choose to keep them out. If there is a choice between latitude for suspects or more powers to police and security agencies – more often, we should choose to support our agencies. And if we can stop hate-preachers from grooming gullible young people for terrorism, we should.”

New co-ordinator, super-department?

The review concludes existing security arrangements are “robust and don’t require structural change”. But, “agencies would benefit from clear direction for CT [counter terrorism] efforts and further strengthened co-ordination mechanisms”.

It offers three suggestions for the new role of “National CT Co-ordinator”, including:

  • The director-general of security;
  • A new position in the Attorney-General’s Department; or
  • A senior position in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“To deliver in this role, the National CT Co-ordinator should chair a new Senior Executive Counter-Terrorism meeting and be supported by a whole-of-government Australian Counter-Terrorism Centre — a cross-agency body perhaps best located within ASIO which already has suitable facilities.”

While it notes there is “no single international best practice model on which to base Australia’s CT governance arrangements”, the report tests the notion of a United States-style “homeland security” department to house all relevant agencies and activities. It agrees with a 2008 review by Ric Smith, stating:

“… small, co-ordinating Department of Home Affairs could be effective at leading Australia’s CT effort if the department focussed on strategic issues.

“A small Australian national security department could oversight all relevant domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies — including ASIO, the AFP, and even agencies such as the Office of Transport Security. It might also include other smaller agencies such as the Australian Crime Commission, AUSTRAC, and CrimTrac. Alternatively, to retain a separation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, ASIO could be left outside such a new portfolio.

“Conceptually at least, such a department might also draw in elements of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. However, those elements are currently in transition to the Australian Border Force (ABF). The emergence of the ABF is itself expected to generate a stronger CT capability.”

New office for social media threats

On Friday, Attorney-General George Brandis announced an $18 million commitment to establish a new office to monitor and respond to social media threats. Brandis said it would “combat the lies and propaganda terrorist groups are promulgating online to gain support and sympathy from vulnerable young Australians”.

The department will invest in a social media monitoring and analysis capability to “better understand extremist narratives and how they affect Australians”. Brandis said:

“The measures will also help reduce access to extremist material online through the recently launched Report Online Extremism tool and by working with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, private sector and international partners to take down or otherwise address extremist content.

“The government is taking a dynamic approach to its communications to better contest the online environment where terrorists are actively distributing their messages. This will include promoting material online that challenges the claims of terrorists and shares the benefits of Australia’s diversity, inclusion, democracy and social values.”

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.