SPENCER ZIFCAK. What’s Wrong with Peter Dutton’s New Super Ministry? The Preparation, the Institution, and the Politician Perhaps?

Jul 31, 2017

Peter Dutton is to be given a fiefdom – the new, massive Department of Home Affairs. Peta Credlin responded immediately by saying that the creation of the new department had the ‘stink of a prime minister who’s under pressure and has to be seen as doing something.’ That’s unfair.

There are reasonable arguments that can be made in favour of the better coordination of the Commonwealth’s national security agencies. At first sight, making the dozen or so agencies that presently inhabit the field more coherent, cohesive and communicative seems to make sense. There are, however, many different ways in which these objectives may be achieved. So, the question is, is this the best way?

Several problems arise. They begin at the beginning. Preparation for the proposal has been, to say the least, sub-optimal. There has been no detailed inquiry or report that recommended this change to the machinery of government. In fact, several previous inquiries in the last decade had recommended against any such amalgamation.

There has been no structured inter-departmental consideration of such an initiative. The significant majority of agency heads just weren’t consulted. The matter did not go to Cabinet. It is widely understood that several key ministers including Julie Bishop, George Brandis and Michael Keenan oppose it, as do a majority of Cabinet Ministers.

Somewhat startlingly, the Prime Minister confessed that the details of the merger had yet to be worked out. Full implementation will take more than a year.

He asserted that this was the most significant reform to national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in 40 years. If that is true, the absence of expert endorsement, comprehensive consultation and Cabinet affirmation bears all the hallmarks of ad-hocery. Not a promising start.

Then there is the institutional reform itself. This amalgamation is huge. It will bring together in one department the following agencies: ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre and the Office of Transport Security. The Australian Border Force and Department of Immigration are rolled in on top. All these governmental agencies will report to one minister, the Minister for Home Affairs. One minister cannot possibly span such a wide arc of responsibility. It is Kushner-esque in scale.

This is not to gainsay the advantages of clear direction and synergetic action in the national security sphere. But there are better ways to achieve this. The best policy, it seems to me, arises from contestability. This is one in which different ministers and agencies are free to express their opinions strongly on an issue, in a process of active deliberation and collective decision-making.

In contrast, the present proposal, by transforming many voices into one, will deny to the national security committee of Cabinet and to the Cabinet itself, the full range of expert opinion necessary to formulate considered strategy and policy. Much better that the Ministers for Immigration, Justice and the Attorney-General take their independent advice and opinions into Cabinet discussion for consideration than to restrict the source of advice to a single, uncontested Home Affairs Czar.

In this respect it is unfortunate that the Government did not take more time to think through the parallel recommendations of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review conducted by Michael L’Estrange AO and Stephen Merchant PSM. This review was given the task of developing new structural arrangements for managing the conduct of national intelligence. The aim of the review was to strengthen integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise.

The review could have proposed the comprehensive amalgamation of the existing, diverse array of intelligence agencies in order better to secure their coordination and unified direction. But it didn’t. Instead, it proposed the creation of a relatively small but highly expert Office of National Intelligence within the Prime Minister’s portfolio.

This Office will now lead the development and implementation of national intelligence priorities and the systematic and rigorous evaluation of the existing cohort of agencies. It will facilitate joint capability planning including by creating the conditions for strengthened data sharing and collaborative analysis.

It will “undertake the intelligence assessment function in an expanded way that includes greater contestability and more extensive engagement with external expertise.”[1]

The Office, therefore, is designed to complement rather than consume the operations of the existing agencies which remain largely independent. Moreover, by consulting more widely with expert external entities, it will further expand the range of opinion relevant to its deliberations and decisions. It embeds a separation of institutional powers that will assist in safeguarding civil liberties.

A coherent yet decentralised model like this could have been adopted for Home Affairs. In the rushed process that preceded the Prime Minister’s announcement of the proposed department, however, it may not have got a look in.

Then, finally, there is the politician. Peter Dutton. What can one say? This is a person who, by common consent, failed as Minister for Health. No less than 1100 doctors ranked him as the worst Minister in their experience.

He was promoted to become Minister for Immigration. He has failed again in that capacity. Yes, he succeeded in turning back the boats. But, when you think about it, that’s not very difficult to do when you have a superbly trained naval force at your disposal.

But, one can’t on any analysis be considered a success when one has presided over the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of innocent people on islands far flung from Australia and in immigration prisons at home.

This is a Minister who has not just tolerated but actively pursued policies and actions that have resulted in the death, violence, rape, sexual assault and mental disintegration of a thousand and more desperate civilians, including small children. We know this. Several independent inquiries have confirmed it.

Peter Dutton accepts this as the price for national security. It is a false dichotomy. He can’t see it. It is a moral failure.

Yet, this is the figure who is to lead our new, mega, national security department. He is a person whose career has thrived on fear and retribution. The Prime Minister, most unwisely, has promoted him for starkly political reasons. Too bad for us. Dutton is a bleak and forbidding choice.

Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University and Acting President of Liberty Victoria.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, June 2017, p.5.

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