Oz intelligence review: Home Affairs
11 Sep 2017|

Strange things happen in that dynamic space where politics and policy meet in Canberra. Part of the discipline is for all players to keep a straight face. No matter the impact of the strangeness, no laughing and no groans. Certainly, display no alarm.

Thus it was that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could release the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, yet make the centrepiece of his announcement something not in the report—the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio. If a PM is going to do strangeness, best to go bold, with broad and confident brush strokes.

The joint announcement from the prime minister, attorney-general, immigration minister and justice minister painted the big picture:

The Turnbull Government will undertake the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in more than 40 years. The reforms will restructure and strengthen Australia’s Intelligence Community, establish a Home Affairs portfolio and enhance the Attorney-General’s oversight of Australia’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies. Australia faces an increasingly complex security environment, evolving threats from terrorism and organised crime, and the development of new and emerging technologies, including encryption.

The restructure of the intelligence community was based on the detailed work of the L’Estrange–Merchant review. Home Affairs was all Turnbull’s own work.

The bureaucracy has 12 months to put Home Affairs and the intelligence pieces together. It’ll be a noteworthy rumble in the Canberra jungle.

Lots of Canberra’s big beasts and wise owls have explained the importance of the rumble and what’ll be at stake. The former head of ASIO, David Irvine, opined that the system ain’t broke but can be improved. Irvine waved through Home Affairs as politicians doing what they do, while stressing the importance of the intelligence review:

The Government has exercised its right to arrange portfolios in ways that it thinks best. It matters little to the effective operation of Australia’s highly professional intelligence and law enforcement community whether they answer to an Attorney-General or a Minister for Home Affairs. We would expect them to perform equally well for both … The real practical significance of the reforms lies not in the Turnbull Government’s new portfolio arrangements but in its acceptance of the 23 major recommendations of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, conducted by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant. This comprehensive and incisive report … objectively identifies areas where a well-performing community can do even better.

Working the same tune, Peter Jennings gave Home Affairs faint praise with firm damns:

The most important point to make about the government’s proposed Home Affairs portfolio is that these new arrangements can be made to work. They will not harm our counterterrorism performance and could improve Australia’s underwhelming efforts to protect against foreign interference and strengthen the security of critical infrastructure. But … it’s surprising that so little groundwork had been done to justify the need for change or to say how it was going to be done.

One of the great modern public servants, Dennis Richardson, was diplomatic in the most lukewarm manner about the creation of Home Affairs:

I’m fairly agnostic in respect of that. I think it’s difficult to criticise. Equally, I think it’s difficult to proclaim it as some great advance forward. ASIO and the AFP have been in the one portfolio for well over 20 years [Attorney-General’s] so you’re not doing anything new in respect of ASIO and the AFP working more closely together [in Home Affairs].

Some, though, just found the review good and Home Affairs bad. Here’s Paddy Gourley delivering a mid-range Gourley-grumble:

While decisions on the [intelligence] review are sound, the Prime Minister’s statements (and those of some of his ministers) on the Home Affairs proposal are rich in cliché, wishful thinking and ignorance. Such shortcomings could be excused if the proposal was meritorious; it is not. Sensible machinery of government principles are offended, the stench of politics and empire building is abroad, there is no revised Administrative Arrangements Order and, notwithstanding the avowed urgency of security and terror risks, the new show will not come into effect for about a year.

With that as prelude, here’s the next in the series of ASPI interviews with one of the authors of the intelligence review, Michael L’Estrange. He says Home Affairs is not part of the review recommendations, but it follows the logic of the review. If Home Affairs was still just an idea, he notes, the rumble in the Canberra jungle would be long and bloody. But Home Affairs is, instead, a decision that has been made and must be made to happen. In L’Estrange’s phrase, this is not a debate about whether, but about how.