Making sense of Home Affairs and counter-terrorism

Late last year the Department of Home Affairs was established as part of what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called “the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in more than 40 years”. This post is to help keep track of what is being changed and what that means for Australia’s domestic counter-terrorism arrangements.

On 18 July 2017 Malcolm Turnbull announced that his government would create a new portfolio called Home Affairs, which would be responsible for all “immigration, border protection and domestic security and law enforcement agencies”. On 20 December 2017 the new Department of Home Affairs was formally established and its website became active.

However, new legislation is needed to complete the process, mainly to move the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from the Attorney-General’s portfolio to Home Affairs. So on 7 December 2017 Turnbull introduced the Home Affairs and Integrity Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, which was referred on 8 December to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is still reviewing it at the moment.

One immediate impact of all this is that ministerial responsibilities for counter-terrorism have changed.

Since the 1970s, the most important ministerial position when it came to counter-terrorism (aside from the Prime Minister) was the Attorney-General, who was responsible for ASIO and the Commonwealth Police Force (later the Australia Federal Police). This began to change in May 2015 when Turnbull gave Michael Keenan, who was already the Minister for Justice, the added role of Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter Terrorism.

Now it has changed more radically, as the portfolios of Minister for Justice and Minister for Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism have been abolished and largely subsumed within the new portfolio of Home Affairs. Moreover, the Attorney-General’s portfolio has now lost most of its national security responsibilities, as they have been handed to Home Affairs. This puts most counter-terrorism responsibilities into the hand of the new Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Dutton will have other ministers helping to run the Department: the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs (Alex Hawke), Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs (Alan Tudge), and the Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security (Angus Taylor). However, it appears that none of these junior ministers will have a counter-terrorism role. At a recent PJCIS hearing the Department’s Secretary, Michael Pezzullo, said that “the counterterrorism minister is Mr Dutton—and solely Mr Dutton”.

While the Attorney-General’s portfolio will have very few remaining national security roles, it will still be responsible for approving ASIO warrants. The Attorney-General will also take responsibility for some key accountability mechanisms, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM). These bodies will be moved from the Prime Minister’s portfolio to the Attorney-General’s.

One question this raises is: what practical differences will these ministerial changes make for Australian counter-terrorism?

Looking from the outside, I would guess that it won’t change a whole lot. ASIO and the AFP will likely continue to function much as they were, as will bodies like the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and Austrac, as they are all statutory authorities. Also, much counter-terrorism is conducted by the States, coordinating with Federal agencies and departments through operational mechanisms like Joint Counter Terrorism Teams or broader structures like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)’s Australia New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee.

However, with Dutton and Pezzullo in charge, I fear that the politics of counter-terrorism and national security will be dragged even more into the politics of immigration and national identity than they already are. James Button’s excellent Monthly article is worth reading for background on this.

There are also questions about whether creating this mega-department will reduce accountability, as former Attorney-General George Brandis reportedly alluded to in a recent speech to ASIO. Also, moving accountability mechanisms like the IGIS and the INSLM from the Prime Minister to the Attorney-General would appear to be downgrading their importance, and the IGIS is not keen on this move.

On the other hand, the Turnbull government has indicated that it would boost the powers and resources of these accountability mechanisms in line with the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review’s recommendations. We will have to wait and see what happens here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s