Homeland security: back on the government’s agenda?
19 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user TeroVesalainen.

Rumours are circulating around Canberra that as the Budget dust settles, the government will again consider the case for an Australian Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This should come as no surprise as Malcolm Turnbull told us as much in early January when he said he’d await the findings of the 2017 Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community before making any decisions. And let’s not forget that both the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, and the architect of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, have both been championing the idea.

But at the same time, there’s no shortage of opposition to an Australian DHS. The various domestic security agency heads, at least according to what’s on the public record, remain opposed to the idea. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has called it unnecessary. In mid-January ASPI’s Executive Director, Peter Jennings, provided a strong argument against bringing ‘together the AFP, ASIO and Australian Border Force into one agency, where they could better engage, communicate and share information to tackle terror threats’ on the basis that when it comes to counterterrorism, ‘the system isn’t broken’.

Australia’s success in disrupting terrorism plots and preventing the travel of potential foreign fighters illustrates that the policy settings for CT in Australia are working. While it’s difficult to assess from outside the intelligence community, Australia’s continued intelligence cooperation with the US stands as an indicator that ASIO’s counterespionage efforts are also in a reasonably good state. But there’s far more to domestic security than CT and counterintelligence.

Australia’s strategies and policies for dealing with transnational serious and organised crime (TSOC) and illicit drugs don’t have anywhere near the same level of coordination or success. In October 2015 Australia’s National Ice Taskforce told us as much when it said ‘despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies, the market for ice remains strong. Ice is still easy to get and its price remains stable’. In June 2016 the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) estimated that serious and organised crime cost Australia $36 billion in FY 2013–14, which hardly supports the conclusion that things are working.

While our law enforcement agencies, including the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF), have achieved outstanding operational results, the fact remains that the government’s policy intent of reducing the availability of illicit drugs and impact of organised crime aren’t being achieved. And ABF, ACIC and AFP key performance measures indicate that this can be attributed to policy and strategy settings rather than operational efforts.

While CT and cybersecurity garner a great deal of whole-of-government coordination, the same cannot be said for TSOC and illicit drug policy, starting with their representation in cabinet and other relevant committees. The fact that the minister responsible for law enforcement and organised crime, the Justice Minister, is a junior member of cabinet, without membership of the National Security Committee is particularly telling.

I believe that this arrangement has second order impacts on the bureaucracy that are particularly evident in initiatives such as Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper. The White Paper will ‘define our economic, security and foreign policy interests’. but reportedly, it has paid scant attention to the coordination of police diplomacy, including law enforcement capacity development and police-to-police cooperation. That’s despite the fact that both issues are integral to Australia’s strategies to combat TSOC. And seems to fly in the face of the National Ice Task Force recommendations which stated that ‘The Commonwealth Government should strengthen international advocacy and engagement on cooperation and information sharing between law enforcement agencies’.

We should also consider the Commonwealth’s domestic security response to intelligence sharing on organised crime. Within the ACIC there are three separate task forces for fusing and sharing intelligence on organised crime: Australian Gangs Intelligence Coordination Centre, National Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre and National Taskforce Morpheus. Then within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection we have the Border Intelligence Fusion Centre. And finally the AFP has remodelled its intelligence function to enhance the ‘identification of convergences and vulnerabilities in criminal activity across investigations to streamline targeting of organised criminals’. While each serves a specific function, the question remains, could they be better performed by a centralised effort akin to the National Threat Assessment Centre model?

When it comes to law enforcement, taskforce arrangements are increasingly the “go to” policy response to threat related operations and intelligence collaboration challenges. The task force approach has been used around the world since the late 1990s to resolve tensions at the intersection of superimposed enforcement jurisdictions. Some academic research has revealed that the taskforce approach still doesn’t improve intelligence dissemination. My own research revealed that at the very least, ‘task forces have led to a range of instances of multiple reporting of TOC statistics’. Arguably, these ad hoc arrangements may just serve to obfuscate the need for more reform.

I believe that, in contrast with other domestic security issues, law enforcement and TSOC policy settings are in dire need of a review. While a single agency structure, such as a US-style Department of Homeland Security, might be one means of improving the situation, there are other options for Australia to consider. At the very least there’s substantial room to re-examine the assumptions that underpin Australia’s law enforcement policies and strategies. For my money, Australia’s domestic security arrangements could benefit from a centralised and focussed policy department that coordinates our national domestic security strategies.