Strengthening Australian democracy: is Home Affairs up to the challenge?

Democracy has been increasingly securitised in recent years, but that’s set to change, as outlined in Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s National Press Club speech earlier this month. The big question is, what does the Department of Home Affairs need to do to shift away from its muscular enforcement stance to a more forward-leaning policy posture?

O’Neil highlighted the previous government’s emphasis on ‘boats and borders’, ‘terrorism and child exploitation’ and ‘bikies, organised crime, illicit drugs and deportations’, saying it was ‘an oddly narrow view of Home Affairs’. Her argument was that today’s national security environment has changed fundamentally since 2017, when the Home Affairs Department was created. Australia is now contending with the impacts of climate change, with more frequent and increasingly severe cyberattacks, and with the undermining of democracy through ‘online misinformation and disinformation campaigns which spread like viruses around our communities’.

Home Affairs’ focus will continue to be on cybersecurity, foreign interference, immigration and resilience, but in a different way. The new way requires a whole-of-nation fight to protect our citizens and our economy. On countering foreign interference, O’Neil said that the ‘policy response will be to open up a bit, and focus on arming the people’, including ‘politicians, academics and community leaders’, who ‘desperately want to fight back’.

What’s new is a broader resilience agenda that emphasises climate change and democracy as two key elements of national security. Of note is a ‘new generation of initiatives in civics and social cohesion’ that will be developed to counter misinformation and disinformation aimed at undermining our democracy. A focus on civics has been absent for many years, but it is needed. A 2016 assessment of Year 10 students found that only 38% were proficient in civics. It’s likely that a survey of Australian adults would unearth an even less promising result.

Such a significant policy shift will necessitate a big change in culture and capability in the department.

The management of Australia’s border over the years provides a tangible example of the scale of the required shift. Until about 2004, the emphasis was heavily on enforcing at the border, characterised by a suspicion of everyone crossing it and an overt focus on compliance. From there the language changed to passenger facilitation, which saw a greater focus on pre-travel passenger analysis to achieve early identification of people of potential concern. The investment in biometric technology and the development of SmartGate was a visible indicator for international travellers that a different approach had arrived.

However, increasing community concern about unauthorised boat arrivals and home-grown terrorism drove an aggressive enforcement approach and increased securitisation of immigration that focused on keeping people out. Migrants were characterised as a challenge to democracy, our economy and all things Australian. O’Neil noted that this approach had resulted in a large underclass of undocumented migrant workers who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. ‘That is not what a world-class migration system looks like,’ she said.

It will take time for Home Affairs to achieve the promised shift given its results in the Australian Public Service Commission’s 2022 employee census. The department scored lower than all other agencies with more than 100 employees on most staff satisfaction indicators, including engagement and wellbeing. Satisfaction with immediate supervisors dropped across all indicators and satisfaction with senior executives also dropped markedly. Only 44% of respondents agreed that internal communication was effective and just 31% considered that the department managed change well. A small 38% said they felt inspired to seek new ways of doing things and 26% thought the department embraced the notion that it was okay to fail when innovating. Again, these results represent a significant drop when compared across the Australian public service.

Many in the department will welcome the government’s whole-of-nation, sum-of-the-parts policy approach.

The big question is whether the department has the level of policy grunt needed and is sufficiently agile to make the shift. The policy capability of the APS has diminished in recent years particularly because the previous government directed public servants to leave ‘policy’ to ministers. Also, 39% of Home Affairs staff are pursuing external employment options and 6% are planning to retire. That’s a sizeable chunk of the department considering other options. This policy shift may encourage some of them to hang around, but not all will be convinced.

Key criticisms of the department are that it is bureaucratic, unnecessarily process-rich, lacks strategy and is slow to act. Those outside the ‘Canberra bubble’ agree and add that the department values process more than achieving outcomes. Even if this were not the case, it’s an indicator of a problematic external perception.

But other expectations being placed on departments will also affect Home Affairs, including a renewed emphasis on stewardship, which as Minister for the Public Service Katy Gallagher notes ‘can encompass building a service that is committed to the public interest and sustains genuine partnerships and is the holder of institutional knowledge, throughout changes in government and societal shifts’. The secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Glyn Davis, placed a few more expectations on departments for 2023: ‘Alongside our roles of policy, impartial advice and service delivery, there is another key responsibility for the public service—stewardship.’

While the Home Affairs website has already received a refresh in anticipation of its new policy direction and the inevitable suite of fresh strategies, the absence of meaningful information is stark. The government expects the department to quickly fill this new policy void. But how? Big transformation agendas tend to slow progress at least initially and add layers of top-down bureaucracy. What’s needed here is rapid cultural change driven by empowered non-executive levels connecting, bottom-up, with the government’s agenda.