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‘So far, so good’ for Home Affairs, but ABF chief still out in cold

“So far, so good” was the cautious assessment of how the establishment of the Department of Home Affairs is going from secretary Michael Pezzullo in Senate Estimates yesterday.

It is still not clear whether Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg will ever join the new department, despite a series of new facts on that issue emerging over the course of two separate hearings.

Pezzullo declined to totally agree with glowing praise from new government senator Jim Molan, whose Dorothy Dixers offered some respite from interrogation by opposition and cross-bench senators.

“Of all the amalgamations and organisational changes that we’ve done over time, it seems to me that this has gone extraordinarily well,” said Molan, who was instrumental in devising the government’s military-led plan to “stop the boats” and putting together the related joint-agency task force.

Pezzullo hit back at concerns about the mega-portfolio’s powerful new role in his opening statement, and assured Senator Kim Carr that the administrative changes were not causing any “argy-bargy” or disputes within the Australian Public Service.

The new portfolio represents neither “overly bureaucratic oversight of otherwise well-functioning operational arrangements” nor “a sinister concentration of executive power that will not be able to be supervised and checked”.

“Both of these criticisms are completely wrong,” he said.

Having been to London to learn about the Home Affairs apparatus there, Pezzullo said the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister were firmly in charge with a “paramount strategic role” in the system.

He said the Brits had “a governance and risk posture where unity of command, singularity of purpose and clarity of political authority are hardwired into the security architecture in very tangible and operative ways”, and that Australia needed the same.

“I repeat what I said last year to this committee: any contrary suggestion that the establishment of Home Affairs will somehow create an extra judicial apparatus of power bears no relationship to the facts or to how our system of government works,” Pezzullo said.

“And any suggestion that we in the portfolio are somehow embarked on the secret deconstruction of the supervisory controls which envelop and check executive power are nothing more than flights of conspiratorial fancy that read into all relevant utterances the master blueprint of a new ideology of undemocratic surveillance and social control.”

No rush, no turf wars

Nearly all of the elements of the DHA have already moved to the massive new department, which will have 14,000 staff, while about 23,000 will work in the greater Home Affairs portfolio.

ASIO is the only agency yet to fall in behind its new portfolio minister, as legislative change is required, and Pezzullo reiterated that it would retain its independence.

Pezzullo explained that for the sake of convenience, about 25 staff whose work is “intimately tied with what ASIO does” also still remained in the Attorney-General’s Department for now.

Steven Groves, the acting deputy secretary for corporate affairs, added that negotiations were ongoing with the AGD and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development over the transfer of “some minor areas” in his wheelhouse, related to IT and human resources.

“These things are a big deal in the public service,” said Carr. “In my experience, they often cause a great deal of upheaval.”

Pezzullo denied that any sort of tension existed in the transfer of functions. “It’s very collegiate and there’s much collegiate calculation going on,” he said. The reason it had taken three months was simply that the diligent people in corporate finance sections are meticulous about “every bean being counted in every particular row”.

Carr also wanted to know if the merger process had been rushed — not compared to others, said Groves — and how much it would cost. The estimate was eventually narrowed down to more than $5 million but less than $10 million.

Home Affairs hopes to have the amalgamation done in time for this year’s budget process.

As for the cost, it’s about $2 million so far, according to deputy secretary Rachel Noble.

“What I’m including in there is the task force, or implementation team, that we stood up within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to work on the detailed issues of the machinery-of-government change as well as those staff, including the Australian Border Force, that we seconded to the whole-of-government-led team in Prime Minister and Cabinet,” said Noble, who the leads the amalgamation task force.

“They make up the bulk of the costs, and they were all, obviously, absorbed within our departmental appropriation.”

Pezzullo did not want to share his final estimate, arguing that it would give various suppliers an upper hand in pricing procurement tenders for office fit-outs and the like, but Carr was not happy to accept that excuse and continued probing.

The secretary agreed he’d be asking hard questions if it was anywhere near $10 million, Groves suggested “a little bit over” $5 million was a fair estimate at this point, but agreed to provide more details on notice.

Is Quaedvlieg ever coming back?

The new Home Affairs boss spent much of the day fending off questions about Quaedvlieg, who has been paid $500,000 of salary while on leave for about nine months during investigations into allegations of nepotism related to a romantic partner.

By the end of the day, it had been revealed that:

  • Quaedvlieg’s fate is now up to Attorney-General Christian Porter.
  • It was decided that having Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton make the call would create perceptions of bias.
  • The Australian Government Solicitor believes Porter has the power to make the decision.
  • The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity completed a report in the third quarter of 2017.
  • Pezzullo recused himself from advising the government on whether Quaedvlieg should stay due to their close working relationship and referred this job to Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, as head of the APS.
  • Parkinson provided his draft advice to Quaedvlieg on December 22 and the ABF commissioner responded on January 17. Porter received these documents on February 5.

PM&C officials took several questions about the matter on notice, but it seems likely that the Attorney-General received the two reports separately, based on evidence from Stephanie Foster, the PM&C deputy secretary for governance. “I don’t believe we’ve seen the ACLEI report, but I’ll confirm that,” she told Labor senator Penny Wong.

Speaking to The Australian, Quaedvlieg said the evidence given by various public servants yesterday was “broadly consistent” with his own understanding of where the process was up to.

MoG lessons with retired major-general Jim Molan

At one point, Senator Molan asked Pezzullo to expound on any “lessons in this amalgamation for government as a whole” but Carr was concerned that this was wasting the committee’s time.

“I was going to say, senator, if you’re asking my opinion, or for a view on public sector reform more generally, we could be here all day, but it’s not actually within my current remit,” Pezzullo told the first-term senator.

Chair Ian McDonald noted that a request for an opinion was out of order. And this was Molan’s second for the day, so he rephrased to simply, “Are there lessons?” — and Pezzullo agreed his remarks would not be for “other areas of government” to stay within the rules.

“In terms of both the amalgamation of Immigration and Customs which occurred in October 2014, which you alluded to, and now building further on that the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio, essentially the lessons are threefold, but I add a fourth, which I mentioned in my statement,” the secretary began.

“The first is: never lose the strength of the legacy of your expert workforce, whether they are Customs, ASIO, the Australian Federal Police or other agencies.

“The deep specialist subject knowledge and the expertise, the professionalism and what I would describe as the vocational excellence of those agencies must be preserved. There is a deep wisdom based on hard-earned operational experience that you get in those agencies.”

Those expert specialists, however, don’t naturally develop “synergy” on their own, in the DHA secretary’s view.

“Without in any way diminishing those individual agency capabilities, traditions, workforce expertise, how can you leverage across the agencies in areas of common purpose, common endeavour?”

These agencies don’t all need to be “chasing the artificial intelligence rabbit” or separately buying in expensive data analysis tools “in a way, frankly, that probably benefits the vendor more than the Commonwealth”.

“We don’t all have to be building our own data storage capabilities, whether physical or in the cloud,” Pezzullo added, arguing that such “horizontal capabilities” need not be duplicated.

His third lesson, particularly relevant to Home Affairs, was to get the governance right.

“When you bring a large-scale operation together, what is in the individual discretion and what is in the individual statutory competence — that’s easy because that’s in the law — of those individual officers?”

Working that out is “best done transparently in a documented fashion and in a way that creates common expectations that are mutually understood” in Pezzullo’s view.

“In our portfolio, I said there are three: individual agency strengths; common purpose, common technologies, common capabilities; getting your governance and your business model and your operating model right.”

And then there was the fourth lesson for Home Affairs: the need for “transparent checks and balances and … rule-of-law considerations” enshrined in the governance model so it is very clear who has “independent discretion” and how they can use it.

“That’s particular to Home Affairs largely because of the potential to infringe liberty if you don’t get those governance arrangements right,” Pezzullo said.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

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