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The case for a Department of Home Affairs: Pezzullo on his place in history

Michael Pezzullo

A single Defence Department was brought together in the 1970s. Later, Foreign and Affairs and Trade were merged, never to be separated again. Now Australia needs a Department of Home Affairs to confront global forces of evil, according to its secretary-designate.

A “dark universe” is emerging as a consequence of globalisation and Australia needs the new Department of Home Affairs to confront the forces of evil, according to its secretary-designate Michael Pezzullo.

“The globalisation of terror, crime, and indeed evil, is becoming much more manifest and apparent to people,” he said, explaining some of the thinking behind the looming machinery-of-government change at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle lunch on Friday.

“Terror has become de-territorialised; it can strike you from anywhere on the globe. Global networks of crime and exploitation, and the enablement of crime and exploitation, is becoming more apparent. There are global dark markets for hacking, money laundering, cryptocurrency movement, assumed identities for criminals, terrorists, child exploitation perpetrators and others.”

The decision to remodel the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio into one focused on domestic national security has been widely questioned but to Pezzullo, a keen student of military history, international relations and political philosophy, it is simply the next logical progression in a global narrative of recent decades.

“You need a focused effort; you need to ensure unity of purpose and clarity of direction, and critically, in this day and age, you need a single accountable minister under the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, at the apex of the entire security apparatus, supported by a department of state whose responsibilities mirror that minister, and can support he or she,” he told the audience.

Some consolidation along these lines has been on the cards ever since before the September 11 attacks, which the former Customs and Border Protection chief mentioned as a key piece of context. The creation of his present department by merging Immigration with Customs was a first step and a much more significant bureaucratic change.

 “You need a focused effort; you need to ensure unity of purpose and clarity of direction.

While a few new functions will be bolted on to DIBP, the main changes are in the roles played by Pezzullo and the Minister, Peter Dutton, as the new Home Affairs super-ministry will mostly cover agencies that retain their statutory independence. Most public servants will do the same day-to-day work as they do now.

Later, he explained the “integrated” portfolio would function in a similar way to the Operation Sovereign Borders taskforce, in that a group of independent agencies would share information and work more closely together toward common domestic security goals.

Within three years, he said he expected Home Affairs agencies would have a “completely integrated approach to a strategy and the translation of policy guidance from government into strategy” and that would flow into “integrated plans that don’t fetter, direct or subvert the authority of the agencies, but set all of our strategies into coherent, integrated plans.”

The soon-to-be Home Affairs secretary believes it is a grave mistake to ignore the “duality” of globalisation and focus on the benefits of an increasingly open and interconnected world. Revelling in his favourite subject matter and perhaps just a little excited by his elevation to the important position, he had fun peppering the speech with cultural references.

Dirty deeds

When Pezzullo was a lad in 1976, Bon Scott was singing about “dirty deeds, done dirt cheap” but most people didn’t actually have access to affordable hitmen, he pointed out. “This is no laughing matter,” he said, offering an example of how the world had changed. “Today, there is a global dark web market for murder. You can jump on the web, if you know where to go, and you can contract a fly-in assassin if you so desire.”

In his view, the pernicious side of globalisation is the growth of a global shadow economy featuring horrific crimes like human trafficking, slavery and child exploitation, enabled by the dark web and cryptocurrencies, and those who perpetrate them should be given no quarter.

“Smashing the dark web” would be one goal of Home Affairs. “Those are the kind of verbs that we’re going to have to start to introduce,” said Pezzullo, likening this to the eventual decision by Western allies and the Soviet Union to destroy Adolf Hitler’s military. “We didn’t manage it, we weren’t mitigating it … we engaged on a campaign of unconditional warfare to defeat someone who, in the end, was not going to be able to be reasoned with.”

Some forms of transnational crime are “so intrinsically connected to evil” that the same attitude is required from governments today, he said. “You’ve just got to be willing to make those choices, and it means you’ve got to be willing to go tough.”

Pezzullo pointed out Western democracies are generally in the red financially, while the international crims he wants to go after are “cashed up” and can inflict a lot of damage at low cost (September 11 being accomplished by 19 people was one example).

Attack “the problem” with a united front

Whatever political considerations informed Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to build the new department, the speech revealed a broad argument that probably formed part of the advice he relied on: confronting globalised crime, terrorism and other threats that could strike inside Australia’s borders requires a united approach.

“It’s not the end of days, if we purposefully attack the problem and make it not so,” said Pezzullo, who thinks it is now a dangerous illusion to imagine that Australia is still relatively safe, that most of the danger is on the outside, and that it can be kept there.

 “The state has to increasingly imbed itself, not [be] majestically sitting at the apex of society dispensing justice.”

We are like hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, he said, who don’t realise how serious the danger is and how much effort and sacrifice it takes our equivalents of Gandalf, Frodo and the rest to defend us. He didn’t explain exactly why the “problem” can’t be attacked with current arrangements, however, but the implication was that agencies like the Federal Police, ASIO, Border Force and AUSTRAC need to work toward the same broad goals more often.

Leaping from Tolkien to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, our first Home Affairs boss also suggested the modern idea of the sovereign state that emerged in the 1600s in books like Leviathan was an increasingly unhelpful concept.

“Sovereignty has been penetrated by supply chains, for good reasons. We like supply chains because they get goods to us, and they allow us to engage in efficient manufacturing. Sovereignty is affected by temporary migration. Air travel — people coming and going – connectivity, yes, which connects us to the internet, which includes the dark web.

“Sovereignty has been compromised by fake news and global campaigns of information subversion and psychological warfare designed to undermine our democratic institutions and public discourse.”

In these times, he argued, “we have to be prepared to act globally, and to develop networks with like-minded actors, including industry and protecting our supply chains that I just mentioned, as well as other states” like our Five Eyes intelligence partners.

“The state has to increasingly imbed itself, not [be] majestically sitting at the apex of society dispensing justice,” said Pezzullo. “The state has to imbed itself invisibly into global networks and supply chains, and the virtual realm in a seamless and largely invisible fashion, intervening on the basis of intelligence and risk settings, increasingly at super-scale and at very high volumes.”

He said everyone needs to understand this and be prudent in business and their personal lives, just like Bec Judd wearing her flat shoes to the AFL grand final in case there was a terrorist attack, which Pezzullo had read about in Mamamia.

“I applaud her judgment,” he said. “I applaud her recent savviness, but above all, I applaud and do congratulate her on that great attitude, first coined in Britain of keeping calm and just carrying on. Well done Ms Judd. You’re an ornament, in that respect, and we look up to you for making that judgment, and to be prepared to speak about it in those terms.”

Much like Pezzullo’s efforts to recast the concept of the “border” as something more abstract and far-reaching than simply a line between the inside and outside of the nation — “a space where sovereign states control the flow of people and goods into and out of their dominion” — he says the new department is needed to reimagine what “home” means.

“Home has to be pushed out in this globalized world, because security is a task, it’s not an end-state. You can never stop thinking about how to improve your security settings, and … home is no longer sealed off from the outside.

“Accordingly, we need to rethink the structure of government, and indeed the architecture of security, because how we did things yesterday is not going to be — and we know this already — how we will need to do things tomorrow.”

A likely alternative, he argued, was that a big “crisis” would occur, leading to an inquiry that would “inevitably” recommend a single department and a single minister responsible for domestic security.

What the Department of Home Affairs will and won’t do

The new department’s role will not be “oversight” of the Home Affairs agencies, Pezzullo said. There’s already mechanisms for that. He said Home Affairs will not be an “overseeing, overriding, bureaucratic layer” telling law enforcement and national security agencies what to do; its relationship to independent agencies will be like that of the Department of Defence compared to the Navy or Air Force.

“So, the core functions of the department will indeed be policy, strategy, the coordination across multiple agencies of those strategies, assessing capability development requirements, assessing resourcing strategies, along with the delivery of certain programmatic responsibilities, such as transport security, visas, which will remain a function of the department’s citizenship programs, as well as emergency management.”

Pezzullo said the soon-to-be department already has some “early focal areas” identified by the National Security Committee, including a way to “globalise our approach” to law enforcement. Counter-terrorism already “works very, very well” but would be reviewed in light of “the evolving threat” and the government also wants to beef up protection of critical infrastructure, he explained.

“We need to look at the protection of our institutions, our democratic institutions, in relation to foreign interference and political subversion,” Pezzullo added. “We need to look at the cohesion of our communities in terms of their fragmentation and fracturing, through the fracturing of public discourse, and indeed the phenomenon of fake news.”

Pezzullo argued these pieces of work “all require an integrated effort with critical assessment from the centre, strategic planning endorsed by the government, and adjoined activities … executed in an integrated fashion” by agencies like ASIO and the Federal Police.

He can see it now; his place in history. The Department of Home Affairs, according to its first secretary, will be “the third force of security” after the integration of Foreign Affairs and Trade into a single portfolio, and the creation of a single Department of Defence before that.

“The security power, which is designed to protect the home front, acting on a global scale, is being organised into a single enterprise to deal with the interconnected and globalised threats that we face at home, recalling that home is not what it used to be.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.