Published daily by the Lowy Institute

US-style Homeland Security: Back on Australia’s agenda?

There are some ideas in politics that turn a lot of laps before they find favour. Few have done the distance that a super national security department has.

Photo: Lee Ann Cooper / Defence Images Commonwealth of Australia 2015
Photo: Lee Ann Cooper / Defence Images Commonwealth of Australia 2015
Published 16 Mar 2017 

There are some ideas in politics that do a lot of laps around the track before they finally find sufficient favour to turn into government policy. Few have done the distance that the proposal for a super national security department has.

Recycled in various forms for more than a decade, the idea of bringing together the national security responsibilities of various security agencies, units within different departments and law enforcement bodies under one superstructure is now on the desk of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Just why it is back is not clear.

Various suggestions have been put forward, from conspiracy theories about it being used as a vehicle for the ambitions of Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration, and his department head Michael Pezzullo, to the more prosaic idea that Prime Minister Turnbull is looking at it as part of a big shake up of administrative arrangements and a major Ministerial reshuffle after the May Federal budget.

The initial reaction to speculation that the idea of a major restructuring of the existing security machinery to create a US-style Department of Homeland Security is back on the agenda indicates that it is still an idea with only luke-warm support.

A who's who of former senior officials with backgrounds in security policy has been publicly quoted as opposing the idea, or at least seeing no overwhelming case for it.  Political interest in the idea outside those directly involved in its consideration seems non-existent.

When the heads of the major security agencies and senior bureaucrats – such as Mr Pezzullo – spent nearly two days appearing before Senate Estimates Committees two weeks ago, there was not a single question about the effectiveness of the current structure of the Australian domestic security system.

In his evidence to the Senate, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, praised the level of co-operation between security agencies and law enforcement bodies. Mr Lewis said that since the Australian terror threat level was raised to 'probable' in September 2014, the domestic security and law enforcement agencies had disrupted 12 major threats with the potential to launch imminent attacks. There had been four 'lone wolf' attacks in that period but he said that the successful disruption of a large-scale, Christmas Eve terror operation in the CBD in Melbourne showed the effectiveness of the arrangements between agencies.

Counter-terror experts say that Australia's rate of disruption of terror threats is among the world's best. But there is clear evidence that not everyone is happy with the current system. A report in Fairfax Media on March 7 quoted an unnamed 'official' as saying that there were major problems in inter-agency co-operation.

The Lindt Café siege in Sydney in December, 2014, is cited in this report and has been referred to by other insiders as raising questions about conflicting counter-terror doctrines between law enforcement agencies.

The suggested new architecture for an Australian-style Homeland Security Department would be centred on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection which, through its Border Force, now has almost 1000 armed officers and has recently established counter-terror units at all of Australia's international airports.

Insiders who have knowledge of internal discussions about the idea say that its return to the government's policy agenda has been sparked by what is seen as the success of Border Force, the creation and consolidation of which are seen as providing foundations on which a single national security agency could be built. Under the umbrella of a new homeland security department – and its minister – would be all current federal security and intelligence responsibilities plus the responsibility for liason with all non-federal agencies, such as state police.

The last time the idea of a 'homeland security' department was seriously considered was by the Abbott government at the time the decision to establish the Border Force was first taken.  While Abbott was said to be keen on a single-super agency, it went into Cabinet's National Security Committee and never came out, put on ice due to concerns that it might produce an over-bureaucratic and more cumbersome structure than is the case with the separate agencies.

In public comments on the idea, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has expressed concern that the structure of separate agencies working co-operatively involves the risk of 'silo' thinking. Dutton said this was the reason the United States created the Department of Homeland Security and that it was important that Australia pursue 'world's best practice' for it's intelligence and law enforcement functions. He added: 'We want to make sure there are no silos, we want to make sure that we're sharing all the intelligence and information because it's part of the reason that we can thwart these terrorist threats before they are realized.' Dutton added that he was not aware of the process for considering the idea and that 'it's an issue for others'.

What the process will be and what the outcome of it will be are firmly in the hands of the Prime Minister. And like every other issue before the government, it is now infected with the politics of leadership speculation. Whatever the reasons for the structure of Australia's counter-terror network returning to the government's agenda, the fact that Dutton has emerged as a potential replacement for Turnbull before the next election means that this issue will be seen in leadership proxy terms.

For this reason alone, it is likely that there will be no urgency in the government's consideration of a restructure.

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