Australia may turn inward at election time, but the big questions won’t go away

The federal election on 18 May will decide political power, and open or close Canberra doors on many other dimensions of power.

The broad consensus on foreign policy and defence between the Liberal–National coalition and Labor means those areas won’t get much campaign airtime.

Australia’s festival of democracy will be intensely domestic. Time to sizzle the democracy sausages and have a wonderful argument about who will run the country.

Fortunate is the nation that can turn inward to its ultimate power contest without giving much attention to the uncertain geopolitical and geoeconomic context. This column is about three power issues Canberra needs to deal with that will hardly blip on the campaign screen: the future of the Department of Home Affairs, the future of Oz international broadcasting, and the future of Oz soft power in changing power settings of the Indo-Pacific.

International broadcasting and soft power are two bits of unfinished business left over by the Turnbull/Morrison government. They’ll feature in the briefings that departments are preparing for whoever wins the election—a red book for Labor, a blue book for the Coalition.

The government ordered departmental inquiries on both topics that now await the outcome of the sausage sizzle.

The international broadcasting report (by the Department of Communications and the Arts and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) is done and has been with ministers for a while. It hasn’t been released. Perhaps it was a low priority that just didn’t get to cabinet. Perhaps it’s a bit embarrassing for the Coalition because of past neglect in the area.

The soft power inquiry is coasting to the finish line. It was promised in the 2017 foreign policy white paper. Where does soft power fit in the firmament of Canberra? That’s a question with bureaucratic as well as political aspects. And when Julie Bishop stepped down as foreign minister, she was no longer there to push a concept she’d championed.

I’ve written a lot on the intersection of broadcasting and soft power and was a co-author of ASPI’s report Hard news and free media as the sharp edge of Australian soft power. Rather than re-hashing those Strategist columns, I’d merely make the obvious point that while Australia can turn inward for its election, that’s a momentary luxury. As DFAT put it, this is a tough new era of ‘rising nationalism and geo-political competition, anti-globalisation and trade protectionism, a shift in power in the Indo-Pacific without precedent in Australia’s modern history’.

The times call for an active and creative Australia using every element of its power, including a loud international voice.

The times may also demand a big new beast of a Canberra department—Home Affairs—but the case for it is still being made.

A re-elected Morrison government must consider how Home Affairs has bedded down. A new Labor government must ponder whether to upend that bed or just remake it.

Announcing the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio in 2017, the Turnbull government called it ‘the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in more than 40 years’.

While that description of the magnitude of the bureaucratic creation is true, the intelligence community didn’t want it. The big Canberra departments fought against it. Turnbull’s own independent review didn’t see the need for it.

Governments are there to do stuff, and this was certainly Turnbull doing something. Part of the reason for the creation was Turnbull’s need to throw a giant bone to an important minister he wanted to keep on side. Having chewed on that bone for a while, Peter Dutton then turned around and delivered his prime minister a fatal bite.

The power Home Affairs can wield is already apparent. In a fine series on Turnbull’s demise, Peter Hartcher describes the last meeting of cabinet’s National Security Committee under Turnbull, in which Dutton and Bishop took opposing positions on four major agenda items.

This was the meeting, in August, where Australia was to decide a threshold question on the building of its 5G telecommunications network, the hyperconnected system to sustain the so-called ‘internet of things’—would China’s giant Huawei be permitted some involvement, or banned?

Dutton prevailed on all four matters, including the Huawei decision

Dutton left the cabinet room with a victor’s swagger; Bishop, humiliated, was on the verge of tears.

If Labor wins on 18 May, its platform commits it to review the Home Affairs portfolio arrangements ‘to ensure they are fit for purpose’. Assuming the department survives, as Michelle Grattan argues, ‘a major issue would be whether it lost oversight of two key agencies, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’.

If Scott Morrison turns the opinion polls around and wins, he might think it’s time to use Dutton’s capacities elsewhere. Defence, maybe?

Whoever wins, it’ll be the chance for a fresh look at Home Affairs. John Coyne’s idea of a green paper to explore all policy options would work for either side.

The current political mentality in Canberra decrees that no government should ever ask questions rather than offer firm answers. That’s why the open-minded, public exploration of all policy options has fallen out of favour. And departmental inquiries, as we’ve seen with broadcasting and soft power, can get stuck inside the system.

A Home Affairs green paper would offer lots of interesting thoughts on the future size and colour of this important new department.