A new beast at Home in Canberra’s jungle
31 Jul 2017|

When a new institutional beast rises up in the Canberra jungle, peer at it through the usual lenses: people, policy, politics and power. Then ask the key questions: Who wins? Will it work? Can it grow and thrive, or even survive?

Behold the just-announced big beast: the Home Affairs portfolio. Officially created, now it must spend 12 months being formed. It’s a funny way to run a railroad—announce the train is at its destination before building the track to the station.

Judging the meaning of a new-fangled, multi-fanged super-ministry depends where you are in Canberra. Different sets of meanings apply in two distinctly different parts of the territory. First, there’s the political citadel on the hill with the giant flag, where Cabinet, Senate and House of Reps reside and creation happens. Second, there’s the bureaucratic jungle surrounding the citadel, teeming with diverse species, where formation takes place.

Conclusions about winners and losers in the political citadel aren’t always accepted in the bureaucratic forest. So it is with Home Affairs.

In the binary, closed world of the citadel, calls about power shifts are instant, as is the identification of victors and vanquished.

The bureaucracy, as befits a complex ecosystem, plays a longer game. The public service knows that the true import and impact of Home Affairs will take years. Ministers come and go, institutions endure—sometimes. A stroll through the jungle reveals the bleached bones of previous mega-departments, killed by ministerial meteorites and the teeth of competing bureaucratic carnivores. Mega-beasts often lose limbs because of power shifts in the citadel—extinction is ever possible.

The announcement of Home Affairs unleashed a blizzard of background briefings to press gallery hacks. Remember the citadel maxim: ‘I brief, those other bastards leak.’ Render the thought this way: ‘My minister wants me to brief you on background because he/she wants a full and accurate account to inform public understanding, proper debate and good policy. And because our sworn party enemy—that so-called ministerial colleague who sits across the Cabinet table—is a malevolent Machiavellian monster who leaks spite and poison!’ In the words of one veteran hack, the swirling leaks offer ‘a case study of how media sausages are made’.

To understand the reality that roils the citadel at the moment, focus on three fundamental truths about personality and political gravity. These statements of the bleeding obvious explain the bloodshed:

  1. Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott are locked in a death struggle to define their own destinies and the immediate course of the Liberal Party.
  2. Turnbull leads a government with a one-seat majority. History and political gravity (and Abbott) drive him towards defeat (although Menzies did claw back from that narrow-majority precipice he clung to in 1961 to triumph at the polls in ’63). Like Menzies, Turnbull needs events and the economy to go his way.
  3. The polls keep chanting that Bill Shorten’s Labor Party will win the next federal election.

In the way of Canberra cycles, if Home Affairs was to be born, it had to be this year. It’s possible to do a bit of deep policy in this town in 2017.

Come 2018, the citadel and the jungle will be policy-free zones as election fever rages. The window for a simultaneous half-Senate and House of Reps election is between 4 August 2018 and 18 May 2019. The gravitational effect and the three bleeding truths mean my money is on an election next year. Once the national budget is done in May, the fever will spike and surge. No other thoughts will be possible. Any moment Turnbull gets a whiff of a chance and a shift in the opinion polls, the rush to the real polls will be on.

The roiling reality explains why there wasn’t much due process in the way Home Affairs was created. Paul Maley reports that ‘shambolic’ political expediency meant the decision was never formally evaluated by Cabinet’s National Security Committee. Turnbull presented the ‘fait accompli’ to the committee after the announcement.

Nasty briefings like that must be answered. The counternarrative is that Turnbull has been thinking for a couple of years about how best to revamp intelligence and security agencies. And the Home Affairs idea was in the public service ‘blue book’ brief to the incoming government handed to Turnbull after he narrowly won last year’s election. A favourable account of Turnbull’s decision by Laura Tingle points to the role of the PM’s chief of staff (and new Defence secretary), Greg Moriarty, who was previously the coordinator of national counterterrorism.

In one of those bits of detail that spice any briefing, Tingle begins her account with a meeting between Turnbull and Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin in late 2015, just after Turnbull rolled Abbott as leader:

Colvin told the Prime Minister he was concerned. Border Force—the frontline agency within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection responsible for enforcement, investigations and detention—had been established a few months earlier, complete with fancy new military uniforms, as part of the merger of the old departments of Immigration and Customs. The head of the federal police was worried that Border Force was shaping up as a separate police force, and one answerable to, and with direct access to, a cabinet minister. Unlike the AFP.

See how they play in the jungle. Tough place, tough game. If there’s no due process before a decision, the process duly happens afterwards. That’s why the PM’s department is leading the bureaucratic work to put Home Affairs together over the next 12 months. The fights were vicious before Home Affairs was announced; the jungle rumble will be equally rough as the new big beast is built. Home Affairs should be fully formed just before election fever takes hold.