The restructuring of Australia’s intelligence and security agencies, first announced last year following an extensive review, has been anything but smooth. It’s caused tensions in cabinet. A parliamentary inquiry requested substantial oversight and reporting changes. A second inquiry was also unsatisfied. Unhappy MPs and senators have used every subsequent appearance of agency officials to continue to press for elucidation.
“Once we’ve committed to this,” warns John Blaxland, ANU’s Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, “it’s potentially going to present considerable pitfalls. So we are on the cusp of being locked into an arrangement that we have to try to make the best of, as best we can.”
Blaxland is joined by Jacinta Carroll, Director of National Security Policy at the National Security College, and Andrew Davies, Director of the Defence & Strategy Program at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute in the latest Policy Forum Pod — a podcast about policy in the Asia and the Pacific — to answer if this will see a much-needed centralisation of intelligence, or is the change trying to fix a system that’s not broken?
Pop over to the Policy Forum to have a listen:
…[D]espite the controversy, there are some clear strategic upsides to shuffling Australia’s intelligence agencies under one portfolio, Carroll says.
“It’s never been the job of a central agency or a single minister to set Australia’s national security interests at a strategic level… We do need that strategy, and I would be looking to the Home Affairs department to produce that strategic direction for national interest.
“I’m a bit glass half full. I think there’s a really good role that the Home Affairs Department can play particularly at that strategic level, but really keeping a focus on who is the competent authority to make decisions in relation to security, and how do we keep an appropriate balance between authorities and powers in this very sensitive area.”
The question of finding this balance, however, raises a key concern about the new mega-department: the issue of contestability between authorities.
“We have in the current system a degree of contestability between the views of agencies that has generated a healthy debate at the national security committee of cabinet on a wide spectrum of issues,” Blaxland says. “The arrangement that we’re heading towards will reduce that contestability.
“Despite the fact that we’ve got very good people in there… organisationally they are being presented with a challenge, where contestability is no longer the coin of the realm – it’s conformity and it’s compliance with direction.”