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It’s time to turn Home Affairs green

Posted By on April 5, 2019 @ 13:24

In ASPI’s Agenda for change 2019 [1], I argued the case for reforming the Department of Home Affairs. Despite its many successes, the department’s establishment hasn’t been smooth and a significant number of budgetary, legislative and machinery of government challenges need to be resolved. However, these challenges pale in comparison to some of the broader ideological debates underway on issues like the securitisation of citizenship and migration or the centralisation of security policy.  It seems clear that whoever wins the next federal election will need to consider what to do next with the Home Affairs construct.

Whatever comes next shouldn’t be driven by overly simplistic binary choices between keeping or dismantling the department, or between security or freedom. Cooler heads may be tempted to call for a more deliberate policy approach, perhaps even a white paper. I suspect that even if a white paper were to be produced it would be viewed by many as a rigged game. The incoming government can do better than making binary choices or attempting negotiated compromises. Before making any decisions, it ought to be mindful of two overarching factors when resolving this policy challenge, the cost of change and public support.

As highlighted in December by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson [2], the public service isn’t a Lego set that can be painlessly rebuilt by each incoming government. For all of the questions that have been raised about the performance of Home Affairs, any further departmental and legislative changes are likely to be costly in terms of resources.

Perhaps of equal concern will be the impacts that further changes will have on those responsible for migration, border security, national security and community safety. While change is a familiar companion for any modern bureaucracy, our public servants, police and intelligence staff within the Home Affairs portfolio are likely to be feeling more than a little fatigued by the breadth, depth and speed of the altered work circumstances they’ve had to deal with in recent years. Another swathe of changes will bring with it further uncertainty that could well create new security vulnerabilities for Australia.

Polling indicates that over the past decade there’s been a steady decline in Australians’ trust in government. Between 2012 and 2017, that trust declined from 47% to 37%, [3] placing us 10 points lower than our US counterparts. Future policy initiatives will need to make a compelling public case when changing the balance between security and freedom.

While policy and strategy are important in the home affairs space, success in law enforcement, security, intelligence and community safety is predicated on community support. But the Turnbull government failed to make a strong enough case for the establishment of the department at the start, and this has haunted the portfolio ever since.

If Home Affairs, or whatever follows it, is to be successful, then a strong, evidence-based case must be presented to the Australian people. This case will need to be even stronger if any future policy initiatives seek to further change the balance between security and freedom.

Whoever forms the next government needs to engage in further public policy dialogue and consultation on migration, domestic and border security, and community safety. The most obvious option here is for the government to commission a green paper. In recent years the green paper has fallen out of use by governments and the public service in Australia. But with falling public confidence and ideological battle lines drawn, a more consultative approach is needed.

A green paper could outline and explore all of these issues and its authors could engage with old and new thinking to generate a series of policy options. The success of a Home Affairs green paper will be predicated on its authors being able to develop an unclassified and understandable case for any changes.

The added bonus for a government that adopted such an approach would be that it would not need to commit to follow up on a green paper’s findings, as is the case with a white paper.

The green paper could then be used to stimulate a much healthier and more informed public discussion. With the green paper, and its subsequent policy discussions, the government could then commission a more prescriptive white paper to help determine its final policy decisions.

Under normal circumstances, the government would direct the portfolio or department responsible for an issue in flux to prepare a green paper. Unfortunately, the issues surrounding Home Affairs have become so politicised and toxic that anything produced by the department or its portfolio agencies is likely to be viewed as tainted. Because of this, the government should consider engaging an independent party, or parties, to prepare this document.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/its-time-to-turn-home-affairs-green/

URLs in this post:

[1] Agenda for change 2019: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2019-02/Agenda%20for%20change%202019_0.pdf?nDC9MXtkjzOD1vY_CHvLkyPTnkjfHrYv

[2] Martin Parkinson: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/politics/federal/aps-not-a-lego-set-for-disorienting-restructures-parkinson-warns-20181218-p50mvd.html

[3] 47% to 37%,: https://www.themandarin.com.au/75831-trust-in-government-in-sharp-decline-edelman-trust-barometer/

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