What does the Home Affairs Office really mean

On July 17 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a federal Home Affairs Office — to be run by Peter Dutton, which will include the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Border Force (ABF). The announcement shakes up the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) ‘family tree’, with the Government arguing the changes will improve the AIC’s capacity and make it more agile, will make us safer, and will give us a ‘better’ and more robust national security system. ASIO moves from the Attorney-General’s Office; a new Office of National Intelligence (ONI) will be created; and a more integrated relationship between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and state and territory police sees those affiliations change forever. Here we look at how these things may or may not fit together, and what they may or may not mean for ‘better’ national security.

As they stand, here are the AIC organisations and their roles. DIGO: Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation; ASD: Australian Signals Directorate; and ASIS: Australian Secret Intelligence Service are all concerned with information collection. ASIO is concerned with collection and assessment. The ONA: Office of National Assessment is concerned with assessment and coordination; DIO: Defence Intelligence Organisation is concerned with assessment; while DFAT: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is concerned with diplomatic reporting. (This is from the ASIS website, so there may be more to it than this.)

Let’s begin with the Home Affairs Office because that’s the big announcement, and the rest hangs off that. It will be responsible for the AFP, ASIO and the ABF. To understand what this means, let’s look at what they all do and where they sit in the current ‘family tree’. The AFP is the Australian Government’s ‘principal law enforcement agency, with the role of protecting national security’. At the moment the AFP is an Agency of the Attorney-General’s Department and is responsible to the Justice Minister. ASIO is ‘responsible for the protection of Australia and its citizens from espionage, sabotage, acts of foreign interference, politically motivated violence, attacks on the Australian defence system and terrorism’. Its reach is national and international. ASIO is an Agency of the Attorney-General’s Department, but, unlike the AFP, ASIO is responsible to the Attorney–General. The ABF is ‘responsible for offshore and onshore border control enforcement, investigations, compliance and detention operations’. The ABF is an Agency of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with responsibility to that Minister. Under a Home Affairs Office all three would be agencies of the same Department and responsible to the same Minister.

These agencies should communicate effectively regardless of the overarching configuration. If the reason for the restructure is that they haven’t been sharing information, then why not? A lot of money’s been pumped into national security since 2001. If a change is needed to better protect Australia, then the July 17 announcement is a confession that there has been an abject national security failure by this Government. But if the AFP, ASIO and ABF are communicating well and our national security is ‘safe’, then why the change? The obvious answer has nothing to do with national security, and lies in the potential financial and political influence and power of the new Home Affairs Minister. Rolling these responsibilities together creates a Ministry with a shedload of policy and budget influence. From what I can tell not a lot should change in relation to the activities of these organisations, and the manner or effectiveness of inter-departmental communication; however, the introduction of a Home Affairs Office points to potentially even less transparency in an already murky and secretive area of government policy, surveillance and policing.

Let’s use an AFP–ASIO example. If at any point it was thought that there was a ‘national security breach’ within ASIO, the AFP’s national security role would mean it’s the Agency to investigate. At the moment, whatever you may think about the efficacy of our systems, there is at least some separation of powers between the AFP and ASIO, and some evidence of accountability (via inter-departmental communications, or a ‘paper trail’) between the two responsible departments. Under a Home Affairs Office, the Office’s left hand would be investigating its right. This isn’t ‘transparent’.

Which brings us to the Office of National Intelligence (and Director of National Intelligence). This is all based on recommendations in Michael L’Estrange’s Independent Review of the AIC. The Review outlined four priority areas: better coordinating structures for the AIC; new funding measures to address capability issues; streamlining of legislative arrangements; and measures to reinforce public trust in the agencies. The ONI will sit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and at first feels a bit like a re-branding of the ONA, but on a second reading it’s clear the Review outlines expanded responsibilities:

  1. Convening and chairing the National Intelligence Coordination Committee and a proposed Intelligence Integration Board.
  2. Convening a proposed National Intelligence Community Science and Technology Advisory Board, National Intelligence Community Innovation Fund, National Intelligence Community Innovation Hub, Intelligence Capability Investment Plan, and Joint Capability Fund.
  3. Producing all-source national assessments and strategic foreign intelligence assessments.
  4. Identifying national intelligence priorities in support of Government policy-making.
  5. Overseeing performance evaluations of the AIC.
  6. Coordinating joint capabilities and shared services across the National Intelligence Community.
  7. Developing an Intelligence Capability Investment Plan for the Forward Estimates period.
  8. Coordinating international intelligence liaison relationships.
  9. Setting community-wide standards for security, analytic tradecraft and ICT.

These responsibilities look overly complicated, and frankly don’t look like they’d aid coordinating structures and communication, ensure greater transparency, streamline legislative arrangements or, for that matter, in any way improve ‘national security’. Taking a step back, though, this all looks like it’s a checks and balances role — although it won’t ever be publically defined as such — that would counter the conflicts of interest created by the Home Affairs Office — although such conflicts will never be acknowledged. My inner-cynic thinks that the Home Affairs Ministry is a political concession devised to gain the votes needed to pass the ONI through Cabinet. (While an unwritten role of the ONI is to temper the shedload of potential financial and political power given to the new Home Affairs Minister.) It’s a political chicken and egg thing.

What really concerns me are the changes to the ADF–police relationship. To better understand these changes, let’s look at the ADF. It is the Australian Government’s ‘military organisation, with the responsibility for the defence of Australia’. It comes under the Department of Defence and is responsible to the Defence Minister. According to the 2016 Whitepaper the ADF’s core focus areas are: defend Australia from direct attack or coercion; contribute to the security of SE Asia and the South Pacific; and contribute to stability across the Indo–Pacific region and a ‘rules-based global order which supports our interests’.

The military and civilian police have singular functions and receive very different training. Soldiers fight external threats; they apply force; they are trained to kill, not apprehend. They fight enemies. Police manage populations, enforce national and state laws, investigate crimes, accumulate intelligence and apprehend criminals. When soldiers are deployed domestically there is the tendency for citizens to become ‘the enemy’.

At the moment our first responders (police) ‘call out’ the ADF (for involvement in non-defence matters) when they [the police] determine that their capacity to deal with an ‘incident’ has been exceeded. However, the July 17 announcements have lowered the bar for how and when the military can take command. This provision will mean amending the Defence Act to make a ‘call out’ easier; will give ADF Special Forces full legal authority to use ‘deadly force’ (when deployed on our streets); will give the Commonwealth the authority to deploy the ADF without an invitation (under ‘extraordinary circumstances’); and will allow the ADF to ‘prevent suspected terrorists from leaving the scene of an incident’. Beyond this, Special Forces will train select police teams; Special Forces are to be ‘embedded in police forces’; and ADF liaison officers will link with police forces. These changes will alter the nature of our police. I’ve lived in a country with paramilitary police units. Mostly, they were a law unto themselves, and in many cases certain crimes (especially drugs and sexual assault) could be traced directly to those soldier–police. And remember, Indonesia placed military officers into all aspects of the civilian bureaucracy after 1965, under the dwifungsi (dual function) policy. I’m not suggesting we’re heading that way, but history suggests paramilitary police units and military officers inserted into the public service don’t end well.

But will any of the announced changes improve the AIC, make us safer and give us ‘better’ security — as the Government claims. The Government accepted all of L’Estrange’s Review recommendations, and there’s nothing to say the implementation of those alone wouldn’t have delivered better national security; however, the establishment of the Home Affairs Office and the changes to the ADF–police relationship are extra and go beyond the Review. They centralise power and merge responsibilities in a way that reduces transparency and oversight. They embed conflicts of interest into the system and introduce complex communication arrangements that could result in Australia being left with a less robust and agile AIC compared to the one we have now. And for what? A Minister with a shedload of policy and budget influence.




The Sydney Morning Herald; the Daily Telegraph; SBS; and the ABC.

Reports and Reviews:

2017 Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community Department of the PM and Cabinet

"A Strong and Secure Australia". Prime Minister of Australia. 18 July 2017. Retrieved 1 August 2017.

National Archives of Australia Records of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security

The Lowy Institute

Radio interview:

Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh (UQ law lecturer, and co-author of The Tim Carmody Affair: Australia’s Greatest Judicial Crisis). For more information about Rebecca’s research and publications see UQ’s website. Among other things, Rebecca was an academic member of Professor George Williams AO’s Laureate Fellowship Project ‘Anti-Terror Laws and the Democratic Challenge’ at UNSW; and she’s worked in the Federal Attorney-General’s Department.