By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.
This week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the formation of a Home Affairs 'super-ministry', to be run by current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. The recalibration will see the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and the Australian Border Force (ABF) - as well as an Immigration Minister and a Justice Minister - all reporting to the Home Affairs Minister. ASIO and the AFP are currently part of the Attorney-General's portfolio, while the ABF is part of the Immigration Ministry. The Home Affairs Ministry will also include the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transactions Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Office of Transport Security.
The Turnbull Government also released an unclassified version of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review (authored by Michael L'Estrange and Stephen Merchant) and accepted the recommendations as a 'sound basis to reform Australia's intelligence arrangements'. The review's primary recommendation is the creation of an Office of National Intelligence within the Prime Minister's portfolio, which would subsume the Office of National Assessments and be responsible for 'strong, enterprise-level management of the national intelligence community'. The review also recommends that the Australian Signals Directorate become a statutory body within the Department of Defence, report directly to the Minister for Defence, and be headed by a public servant equal in seniority to the heads of ASIO and the Australia Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).
Former ASIO and ASIS head David Irvine argued that the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' thesis adopted by many critics of the Home Affairs change misses the point:
Many commentators have ignored the essential thrust of the Government's announcement, which was more along the lines of 'It ain't broke, but that don't mean we can't make it better'.
Too often, governments are only stirred to improve national security or law enforcement capabilities after some catastrophic failure. Disaster-driven reform is the norm. In this tranche of intelligence reforms, the Government has sought proactively to make further improvements to an intelligence and law enforcement community, which it acknowledges was already working well, to ensure that this community is even better placed to address the range of threats the country faces now and will face in the future.
Former Ambassador to China and Indonesia and former Defence Secretary Ric Smith highlighted the difficulty of implementing Turnbull's changes in the allotted timeframe:
Mr Turnbull foreshadowed that a lot of work would be needed between now and the cutover to these arrangements in mid-2018. He was right to describe the work as ‘complex’. Nor will it be without controversy. Decisions of the usual machinery-of-government kind about shuffling offices and functions from the Prime Minister’s Department to the Attorney-General’s and from Attorney-General’s to Home Affairs will provoke internal argument about budget and staff allocations, but will be simple by comparison with the governance issues that need to be addressed.
The transition period presents the current government with a potential political risk, noted Geoff Kitney:
During the Government’s consideration of the shake-up and consolidation of the domestic security agencies in a new Home Affairs Department – a process which is expected not to be completed until well into 2018 – some ministers were concerned that the actual process of creating the next department would be disruptive to the major agencies.
At least one minister warned that if there was a major terror incident while the re-organisation was taking place the Government could pay a high political price, especially as there were respected voices that would say that the changes were unnecessary.
On the intelligence reforms, John Blaxland endorsed the review's recommendations but questioned the timing of the release:
Overall, these recommendations are sound. The intelligence review is well considered, timely and reasonable. L’Estrange, Merchant and Lobban deserve to be congratulated for a job very well done.
It is unfortunate, however, that the reviews findings were not declared in isolation of the Home Affairs proposal. By announcing the results of the intelligence review and the new Home Affairs arrangements together, the important reforms outlined risk being lost in the background noise. The new Home Affairs governance arrangements lack the same level of intellectual rigour applied by the intelligence reviewers.
In a similar vein, last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that the current regulation concerning the encryption of messaging apps was inadequate, and proposed a new law to force tech companies to grant Australian agencies access to messages when required by a warrant, as end-to-end encryption renders intercepted messages practically uncrackable. Despite Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis appearing to not know what a 'backdoor' actually is and the latter saying, rather oddly, that 'the laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia', an eventual policy destination may slowly be emerging, according to David Wells:
The specifics of how this cooperation might work remains unclear. But Hannigan’s comments point towards a solution that might satisfy some of the concerns of privacy and cyber security advocates, while also delivering a workable solution that delivers real value for law enforcement agencies - private sector-assisted hacking.
Cooperation would be compelled via a warrant, with all the accompanying oversight that this should imply. Its target would either be an app provider (such as What’s App) or perhaps more realistically, the operating system provider (largely Apple or Google). On receipt of a warrant, the provider could push a unique, tailored ‘update’ to a target’s device, containing device-specific malware that delivered ongoing law enforcement access to the device, and hence, the associated content and metadata.
While Australia's policy analysts may have been consumed with Home Affairs and the intelligence review, its political analysts were rocked this week by the shock resignation of Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, on account of their hitherto unknown status as dual citizens. Ludlam and Waters, who both migrated to Australia at very young ages, may not have been the intended target of Section 44 of the Constitution, but Section 44's stipulations are still a useful requirement for Australia's democracy, argued Rodger Shanahan:
Australia being a multicultural country does not obligate its parliament to be a multinational legislature.
Last Friday, Indonesian officials announced that were renaming the waters in the northern end of the Indonesia's exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands (a section that overlaps China's 'nine-dash line' maritime claim) the 'North Natuna Sea'. The renaming is an indication of Indonesia's 'going it alone' strategy – while that may work in the short term, Aaron Connelly thinks it's unlikely to work forever:
It seems unlikely to prove a reliable deterrent in the long term, as the size and capability of the People's Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard grow relative to Indonesia's much smaller fleets. Moreover, these steps will do little to address Beijing's increasingly aggressive behaviour, disregard for international law, and refusal to negotiate in good faith on an issue of critical concern to the region, which portends poorly for Beijing's conduct in other areas as it becomes more powerful.
The disbanding of the Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia by President Jokowi is a bungled policy approach that is risky for Jokowi on a personal and has the appearance of state power abuse, wrote Gregory Fealy:
The government’s actions have proven controversial and there are strong grounds for arguing that both decisions undermine Indonesian democracy and carry considerable political risk for Jokowi. The use of the Perppu (a regulation in lieu of law), in particular, points to the government’s inept legal and political strategies behind the banning.
Lisa Louis examined President Emmanuel Macron's fresh approach to France's foreign policy:
Macron is striking a new, pragmatic and self-confident tone in the country's foreign policy, for which he's received a lot of kudos. The recent reception for US President Donald Trump in France is a perfect illustration of this new approach.
Following the death of human rights activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo last week, traditional and social media in China promulgated the narrative that Liu was 'led astray' by the West. Merriden Varrall:
From an average Chinese mainlander’s point of view, insofar as they know about it at all, Liu Xiaobo was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize by the West because he called for unrealistic political reforms and an end to Communist party rule. Some Chinese friends have told me this felt like a very badly-behaved son who slapped his mother’s face and was then rewarded by strangers for doing so. So, according to this perspective, China (the mother) punished the son and sentenced him to prison. However, when Liu Xiaobo was diagnosed with cancer, those strangers began criticising the mother. China must therefore do something to show mercy, but also stand firmly on its principles.
On the border of India, China and Bhutan, the biggest crisis between the former two countries in 30 years is currently unfolding, notes Shashank Joshi:
In all likelihood, the Doklam crisis will not lead to war. China has a long record of using public threats to coerce adversaries, but the consequences of a war with China would be far out of proportion with the issue at stake. However, a quick solution (either unilateral or mutually agreed) is also unlikely. As the crisis stretches on, China is likely to seek ways to pressure India, both on the border and elsewhere, and this will compound the cycle of competition that is already well underway.
Finally, the IMF's overly rosy view of its own performance during the Asian financial crisis belies the organisation's current and future shortcomings, argued Stephen Grenville:
Is the IMF more prepared to help in the next crisis? Certainly, its assistance programs are more readily available than the 1997 programs, which were inadequate in size and ill-suited to the nature of the crises. But the top-of-the-list of foreseeable problems in Asia (excessive domestic debt in China and Japan) aren't amenable to IMF programs, and any crisis would have to be largely handled by the domestic authorities. The IMF was largely irrelevant in the 2008 financial crisis. The ongoing 2010 Greek debt saga, not foreseen, has left the IMF with its operating principles badly stretched, the recipient of the program with its GDP down 25% and foreign debt levels that the IMF itself describes as 'unsustainable'. It still has no procedures for 'bailing-in' foreign creditors. Capital flows are now so large and potentially volatile that the IMF's own resources seem puny, and coordination with other sources (CMIM or US Fed swaps) remains untested.
The IMF has a thankless task – by the time its assistance is called on, the problems are already out of hand and crisis medicine is inevitably bitter. Perhaps the only way to keep morale high is to overstate how much has been achieved since the last crisis, and hope for the best when the next one arrives.