Government and governance, National security | Australia

4 May 2018

On the latest Policy Forum Pod, three experts discuss the Australian Government’s reorganisation of national security functions into a single portfolio.

At the end of 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a significant restructuring of Australia’s intelligence and security agencies: the creation of a new super-department of Home Affairs. What will the change mean for Australia’s national security? Will the country see a much-needed centralisation of intelligence, or is the change trying to fix a system that’s not broken? On the latest podcast, experts John Blaxland, Jacinta Carroll and Andrew Davies help us put together the pieces of Australia’s new mega-ministry. Listen here:

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, Director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute, and Head (acting) of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Jacinta Carroll is the Director of National Security Policy at the National Security College, Australian National University.

Andrew Davies was the inaugural Director of the Defence & Strategy Program at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.

Malcolm Turnbull has called it the most “significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements and their oversight in more than 40 years”.

His government’s creation of a new Department of Home Affairs will bring together a large chunk of Australia’s intelligence community under one portfolio, including the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and the Australian Border Force.

The new mega-department is a considerable change to Australia’s intelligence landscape, and its creation hasn’t been without controversy.

“One of the things that is quite controversial about Home Affairs is that this appeared to come from a political decision, rather than reviews,” says Carroll. “Very interestingly, it was announced at the same time as the outcomes of a known significant and regular review – the Independent Intelligence Review.”

There are also serious questions about what provoked the need for the change.

“One of the best indicators that this was political was that there’s no clear answer to the question of what problem does it solve?” Davies says.

Yet despite 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.”

On at least one aspect, the three experts could agree: the changes underway will be very hard to undo.

“A future government that says, no actually we don’t like this Home Affairs, or we think we’re spending too much on this, then opens themselves up if something happens – a terrorist act happens for example,” says Davies. “Then the opposition of the day has a field day: this is a government that cut back on national security and look what happened.”

Blaxland agrees and says any attempt to undo the reforms would be like unscrambling an egg.

“Once we’ve committed to this, as Andrew has pointed out, 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.”

Policy Forum Pod is available on SpotifyiTunesStitcher, and wherever you get your podcasts. Got feedback for us on this pod? Email, tweet us @APPSPolicyForum or find us on Facebook.

This episode of the pod was written, produced and edited by Maya Bhandari. This blog post was written by Nicky Lovegrove.

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