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Australian Homeland Security Department groundhog day

Some in the federal government are again pushing for a controversial merger of at least six agencies into a US-style Department of Homeland Security to help improve collaboration and more effectively tackle terrorism.

The idea, which made a fleeting appearance under prime minister Tony Abbott before being placed in the too hard basket, is for Immigration Minister and cabinet conservative Peter Dutton to team up with “the plan’s architect”, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Mike Pezzullo, to build a big new security department around DIBP, reports Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher.

It’s a notion that has popped in Australia periodically ever since being implemented in the United States in 2002. Labor carried a similar idea to the 2007 federal election, before abandoning it on public service advice — something the then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull called it “one broken promise for which we can all be very thankful”, arguing it was “a very poorly conceived idea — a cheap copy of an American experiment.”

The current idea would involve removing security responsibilities from the Department of the Attorney-General — and, of course, from the Attorney General himself, the unpopular George Brandis. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, Austrac and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission would thus sit alongside the uniformed Border Force. Versions of this proposal have been floating around for a few months, the Daily Telegraph reported in January.

Defence, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service would all apparently be excluded from the merger.

Apart from giving the impression of further militarising Australia’s security agencies, the idea raises the prospect of yet another restructure less than two years after Immigration and Customs were merged to create DIBP and Border Force.

But the American Department of Homeland Security, created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has had major problems with coordination between what were previously 22 distinct agencies.

Many serious issues persist, says the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general John Roth. “A lack of coordination and unity occurs in all aspects of DHS’ programs — planning, programing, budgeting, and execution — and leads to waste and inefficiency,” he told a congressional committee last month. The United States Government Accountability Office has long treated DHS’ capacity as a “high risk” area due to the difficulty of merging so many agencies.

Although the Australian proposal does not quite reach the scale of complexity of the American shift, it still appears to have the potential to significantly disrupt the work of the agencies implicated.

A report prepared for then-PM Kevin Rudd by former secretary of the Department of Defence Ric Smith in 2008 argued that creating a new department or merging several current agencies “raises several risks”:

“It could disrupt unduly the successful and effective work of the agencies concerned and create significant new costs. Large organisations tend to be inward-looking, siloed and slow to adapt, and thus ill-suited to the dynamic security environment. For a number of the agencies concerned national security considerations are embedded with a broad range of other service delivery, policy, program and regulatory functions which could be jeopardised by restructuring them around their security roles.”

The alternative approach, Smith said, “would be to recognise and build on the strengths of existing institutions but to identify weaknesses and address them”, relying on a networked system. He considered this to be “more appropriate for Australia”. The Howard government’s preference was for separate agencies to collaborate as a network.

Turnbull’s parliamentary take on the then-Labor government’s recently abandoned (and relatively vague) idea to create a Department of Homeland Security back in 2008 reads amusingly now:

“According to Labor’s critique, the coalition had been putting Australians in harm’s way by allowing each of our security agencies to operate within its own area of specialisation. Labor’s answer was to bring it all into one gigantic superbureaucracy, and today the Prime Minister himself has exposed that proposition as the hoax it always was. The truth of it is that what Labor was proposing was a wasteful and costly exercise in bureaucracy. It would have meant reinventing well-established patterns of cooperation and coordination between our key security agencies and confusing and complicating the existing practice of reporting lines within and between those agencies.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.