Unpacking a classic Turnbullian announcement: Home Affairs, cyber security and intelligence

Yesterday’s announcement of a wide-ranging national security shake-up was a typically Turnbullian piece of communications that provided lots of information all at once, but also left a lot of observers scratching their heads.

Misunderstandings resulted in many cases as reporters, The Mandarin team included, scrambled to summarise several separate but interlocking announcements.

It took the Prime Minister and three other cabinet ministers over 3,500 words to explain the new machinery of government they plan to build, and that was before the questions. So today, we go over it, piece by piece.

Australian Intelligence Community Review

First, the PM announced his immediate acceptance of several recommendations of the review into the Australian Intelligence Community, which was published in full later in the day.

One is the creation of an Office of National Intelligence, whose boss will be called the director-general of national security. The aim is “to ensure more effective coordination of Australia’s intelligence effort” and the entity will almost certainly be a souped-up and rebadged Office of National Assessments, which currently plays a co-ordinating role in the Australian Intelligence Community.

The AIC refers to the ONA plus the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Defence Intelligence Organisation, Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation and Australian Signals Directorate.


Turnbull said “a lesson that we have learnt from the UK is that having a central policy making process leads to better operational outcomes” as a way to explain the ONI’s role, and also referred to our four English-speaking allies:

“All of our Five Eyes partners have established a single point of coordination for reasons the [intelligence review] report makes very clear. Australia doing the same will ensure even better collaboration with our Five Eyes partners.”

Some people have since pointed out we’re also the only Five Eyes nation not to have a bill of rights. The PM claimed protection of civil liberties would be maintained by “stronger” oversight of national security agencies like ASIO under the new arrangements, which also include shifting the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and Commonwealth Ombudsman to the Attorney-General’s portfolio.

“The Ombudsman, as you know, plays a vital role in considering and investigating public complaints about unfair or unreasonable treatment by government departments and agencies, many of which are involved in these reforms,” he said.

“Its placement within the Attorney-General’s portfolio complements other changes announced today and cements the vital role of the first law officer in ensuring governments act lawfully and justly.”

It’s quite a trick, if Turnbull can be believed, that “without creating any new unnecessary bureaucratic layers, these reforms ensure a higher level of checks and balances than we have ever had before” and this is all part of making sure “security and civil liberties” are balanced.

The PM also revealed the government had accepted the intelligence review’s recommendation to make the Australian Signals Directorate “a statutory authority within the Defence portfolio” — a slightly confusing choice of words given it is and always has been part of Defence.

Of course, this simply means getting legislation through Parliament to separate ASD from the Department of Defence and cement its existence by making it harder for future governments to weaken or abolish it, but the details will be in the bill itself.

“We will also accept recommendations [of the intelligence review] to further boost the nation’s cyber security,” the PM announced.

“In recognition that the Australian Cyber Security Centre must have a whole-of-economy focus, I will appoint my Cyber Security Special Adviser as the Head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

“And we will establish an Australian Cyber Security Centre 24/7 capability to respond to serious cyber incidents.”

Turnbull said the head of his department, Martin Parkinson, would put together a taskforce “to manage implementation of the changes and to consider them in detail” and that he expected “the reforms” to be implemented progressively over 2018.

One assumes he meant the above-mentioned cyber security reforms, having earlier said the government would consider the full report of the intelligence review and before it issues a detailed response.

The head of the review, former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Michael L’Estrange, spoke to Sky News about the report:

Department of Home Affairs

The biggest administrative change of course is the establishment of a Department of Home Affairs. According to the PM, it will “oversee policy and strategic planning and the coordination of the operational response to the threats we face”.

Those operational responses will be handled by six agencies: ASIO, Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Office of Transport Security, part of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

Of those, only ASIO is a member of the Australian Intelligence Community, providing a tenuous link between the upcoming mega-department and the intelligence review, which did not consider all areas of domestic security.

“Now let me be quite clear; this is not a United States-style Department of Homeland Security,” Turnbull said. “The agencies will retain their current statutory independence, which is such a vital aspect of our Australian system.”

The Federal Police, Border Force and ASIO “will all report directly to the Home Affairs Minister” so they have a direct line into Cabinet, the PM said. “This will ensure that these three important agencies have direct reporting into Cabinet.”

Yesterday, Turnbull said the arrangements would be “similar” to the United Kingdom’s setup, and strengthened the language to “identical” when he spoke to radio host Eddie Maguire this morning.

The current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton will be sworn in as the first Minister for Home Affairs, and it sounds like the Immigration portfolio is being downgraded; the PM’s comments appeared to place it on an equal footing with Justice, a junior ministry outside Cabinet.

“The Home Affairs Minister will have two ministers working to him, on the security side and the immigration side,” Turnbull said. “Michael Keenan, who has been doing an outstanding job as the Justice Minister, will continue to be that important security-focused minister.”

Despite the whirling political intrigues, Turnbull sought to explain the idea by referring to the intelligence review, before it was published.

He said the AIC review “noted the existence of a number of ad hoc taskforces which seek to enhance cooperation and coordination between agencies on specific threats” and observed that intelligence agencies faced “very similar challenges” to the domestic national security agencies that will soon come together under the Home Affairs banner.

“In these difficult times, repeated reviews and task forces are not enough. We need to take more decisive action.

“We can’t take an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to security arrangements, not least because our adversaries are agile and nimble, constantly adapting and evolving to defeat our defences.”

“We need more enduring and better integrated arrangements for our domestic and border security. Arrangements that will preserve the operational strengths and independence of our frontline agencies, but improve the strategic policy planning and coordination behind them.”

What will happen to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection?

Given that the DIBP will be part of the Home Affairs portfolio and is already a large organisation, it seems very likely that it will be the basis for building the new Department of Home Affairs.

One journalist asked the PM directly: “Will the Immigration Department be renamed the Home Affairs department?”

Turnbull did not explicitly say no, which he is fond of doing. “There will be a new Department of Home Affairs, which will include the agencies that I have mentioned and Peter [Dutton] will be the minister and it will include Immigration, Border Protection, AFP, ASIO and so forth,” he said simply.

The main question the government now needs to convincingly answer is why, or more specifically, why now?

In moving to establish a Department of Home Affairs, the Prime Minister has taken up a proposal that has been floated to various governments by certain bureaucrats and ministerial advisers since shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Informed sources told The Mandarin in 2015 the idea was proposed to the Gillard government in 2010, and that a former high-ranking Immigration deputy secretary, Bob Correll, took the idea to the Coalition government when he went to work for then-minister Scott Morrison. Tony Abbott didn’t take it up, but Turnbull has.

In some ways, however, the Abbott government did begin the process by merging Customs and Immigration to form the present-day department, in which the operational arm, Border Force, is meant to be integrated with the immigration-related responsibilities like citizenship, settlement services for migrants and so on.

That MoG change caused major upheaval with a lot of the former immigration department’s senior staff leaving, amid a significant shift in focus to more efficient flows of people and goods across the border on one hand, and stronger national security — or at least the appearance of it — on the other. Critics like the former communications boss of the old department, Sandi Logan, still oppose this decision and the ousting of secretary Andrew Metcalfe from the public service altogether.

This also involved integrating two very different workforces with different cultures as well as the typical office stuff — corporate services and computer systems — and this process is still yet to be fully bedded down.

Changing the logos and letterheads once again, and the many more substantial changes that implies, would surely elicit more groaning and heavy sighs from the public servants who have to make it all happen.

Then again, it is possible the new department will be completely new and DIBP will stay as it is. In this case, Home Affairs would be a much smaller office with a big job.

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