Home affairs: painting over the cracks?
15 Aug 2017|

If our domestic security agencies’ past operational achievements (see, for example, here and here) are anything to go by, the success of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Home Affairs portfolio seems inevitable. Turnbull could be forgiven for thinking that this once-in-40-years reform could be a lasting legacy. Unfortunately, such thinking underestimates the possibility that the creation of the portfolio will expose difficult-to-fix cultural and philosophical differences between agencies that have, to date, been ameliorated by the goodwill and leadership of individuals.

Anthony Bergin and Derek Woolner characterised the new organisation as a ‘blank canvas: it’s primed, with some tints already on the palette’. If that’s the case, then as the minister for home affairs–designate Peter Dutton prepares to paint his masterpiece, he may just notice that there are more than a few imperfections in the canvas.

Since 11 September 2001, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) have sought to break down communication silos. That has been especially tricky for the AFP, which has had to contend with the complications of working with an intelligence agency, including systems integration and security clearances.

While banter between the staff of our major domestic security agencies is healthy, it often masks nagging feelings of genuine interagency distrust. In my experience, while there have been plenty of executive efforts, interagency cooperation on domestic security has often been more reliant on interpersonal relationships than on structure or process.

The arduous post-9/11 AFP–ASIO journey will likely pale in comparison to the integration and security challenges of putting together the Home Affairs portfolio. One of the most difficult tasks will be developing a culture that nurtures trust and cooperation. With the influx of new agencies and functions into the Home Affairs portfolio, Minister Dutton would be better served by efforts to facilitate cohesive organisational behaviour that engage with and support each agency’s unique identity than by trying to forge a single portfolio-wide culture.

On the plus side, Minister Dutton has gained plenty of experience in dealing with those kinds of challenges following the creation of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Border Force. The secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, and the commissioner of the Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, brought together two very different agencies to achieve both operational and strategic successes. But two years down the track, they still face a long and difficult road in building a new organisational culture. A key lesson learned is that this kind of change may take up to a decade to fully mature.

As a sign of unity in the senior ranks, Dutton could consider establishing a secretaries committee on domestic security. The committee could operate in parallel with the existing Secretaries Committee on National Security, providing a unified home affairs input to the National Security Committee of Cabinet and sending a clear message to the portfolio’s staff that cooperation is beginning at the very top. Significant work would need to be undertaken to clearly delineate the committees’ respective responsibilities.

One perplexing problem that Dutton will face relates to the tension between the Commonwealth, or national, perspective on organised crime and that of the states and territories.

The states and territories argue that they should be represented equally with the Commonwealth when strategy on multijurisdictional crime is being developed. In contrast, the federal law enforcement perspective is that the national organised crime threat is not simply an aggregation of the various states’ and territories’ interests.

To date, the AFP has been quarantined from that argument by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC). The ACIC’s role has evolved into a focus on an ‘improved national ability to discover, understand and respond to current and emerging crime threats and criminal justice issues, including the ability to connect police and law enforcement to essential policing knowledge and information’. That function was developed to meet the challenges of multijurisdictional organised crime and the problems associated with coordination and communication between jurisdictions.

Until now, Australia has had no integrated national‐level strategic decision‐making entity that could truly guide operational law enforcement activity. The ACIC’s board has adopted an egalitarian approach that attempts to equally distribute efforts across the nation’s various jurisdictions. Unsurprisingly, the ACIC has struggled due to the absence of any centralised and sufficiently granular organised crime strategy-making or decision‐making entity.

As the minister responsible for Australia’s national law enforcement strategies, Dutton will encounter more than a few conflicts between state and territory jurisdictional priorities and those of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the resolution of those conflicts, in the form of a clear national law enforcement strategy, is well overdue.

So, arguably, before Minister Dutton can start painting his masterpiece he’ll need to closely examine the fault lines between the tectonic plates of Australia’s domestic security agencies. And, as I said last month, he may need to conduct a more substantive review of each agency’s long-held strategy and policy assumptions to resolve those issues.