Should ministerial arrangements for domestic security be changed?

Straw menRecent media debate around the increased terrorism alert and concern for national security begs the question of whether the current Australian ministerial framework for domestic security would benefit from reform. Nobody seriously suggests that a US-style Department of Homeland Security is the right move for Australia: that’s a straw man. But we think it’s worth considering whether ministerial arrangements for domestic security should change: even if only to affirm the status quo.

In an effort to promote such a discussion, we’ve teamed up to produce an ASPI Insight (PDF) that presents the case for and against rearranging ministerial responsibilities in the domestic security space.

In opening the case for change, David identifies anomalies in the current division of responsibilities among Commonwealth ministers, and five major reasons why change is needed. The first of those is that we’ll get a new law-enforcement agency in 2015 when Australian Border Force is established. That change will result in Cabinet gaining a second cabinet-level minister responsible for law enforcement.

Another important aspect is the absence of clear lines of authority and direct representation in Cabinet for some domestic security agencies. Specifically, the Minister for Justice currently reports to the Attorney-General, but is responsible for the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission’s activities, which introduces some ambiguity in the lines of authority for those agencies. Also, the Justice Minister currently doesn’t have a seat in Cabinet or on the National Security Committee. Therefore, he doesn’t routinely contribute when his agencies are discussed, and must implement policy he doesn’t have a direct say in.

Further, sustained ministerial focus will be needed to address emerging Australian security challenges, such as organised crime and people smuggling. And lastly, there’s also an inherent challenge in the one minister being responsible for freedom and security.

David proposes a change, whereby the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection gets some new responsibilities and a new title: Minister for Security and Resilience. The aim is to unify the efforts of domestically-focused security agencies. That would result in the Attorney-General focusing on developing and administering the law, and the newly-appointed Minister for Security and Resilience becoming responsible for enforcing the law and building community resilience. The benefits of that change would include clearer responsibilities, increased accountability and increased coherence in an area with some anomalies.

The split would also introduce resilience, a critical element of policy-making, into Cabinet. As well as responding to immediate national security issues, the new minister could lead national efforts on disaster mitigation, adaptation and response efforts, while promoting social harmony through programs assisting law-enforcement agencies working with vulnerable communities.

On the other hand, Peter disagrees about the need for large-scale change of ministerial portfolios. He supports smaller changes that should be made cautiously. He argues that ministerial workloads are necessarily substantive, and governments would be better off keeping capable ministers busy rather than having more ministers with fewer tasks.

Further, national security is complex, and responses come from many portfolios; it’s therefore impossible for one minister to single-handedly make decisions. Policymaking should instead come from numerous critical minds making key decisions at a ministerial level. Not to mention that the current Australian national security machinery is competent, well-funded and closely managed. While all systems can be improved, a large overhaul wouldn’t be a good idea at a time of high alert.

While the Border Force will mean some ministers have overlapping roles, those should be addressed by clear legal drafting instead of a new minister. There’s also nothing unusual in having portfolio responsibilities divided between senior and junior ministers, and potential overlaps are common and inevitable. As senior portfolio manager, the Attorney-General currently represents the Justice Minister both in Cabinet and on the NSC, and other ministers can be co-opted to attend the NSC when needed.

While we certainly need sustained ministerial focus to address emerging national security challenges, the NSC should remain the focal point of attention, not individual ministers. Having the same minister advocating freedoms and security doesn’t necessarily present a challenge, given that ministers overseeing and resolving potentially conflicting priorities in portfolios is an inevitability of government.

Peter contends that while the argument for a new minister is a good one, that doesn’t make it necessary. He also disagrees with the proposed connection between disaster resilience and community harmony, believing the latter concept to be a cultural aspiration rather than the basis of a decision-making ministerial position.

We think the conversation’s worth having, and it’s a pity that a focus on personalities and straw man arguments have dampened it. ASPI welcomes your contributions to this discussion.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Robin Ellis.