Do we need a Home Affairs portfolio?

Ric Smith, a former Secretary of the Department of Defence, who led a review of “Homeland and Border Security” in Australia for the Rudd Government, talks to Ross about why he rejected the idea of a Home Affairs portfolio in 2008,and whether we need one now.

Introduction – Do We Need a Home Affairs Portfolio?

Ross Greenwood: Welcome back to Money News right around Australia. Well, as you will have heard, Malcolm Turnbull today has announced a big overhaul of Australia’s law enforcement’s intelligence and security arrangements by effectively building a new home affairs portfolio that will be headed by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. The loser in all of this is the Attorney General, George Brandis. The reason for this is at the moment ASIO comes under the auspices of the attorney general, always has.

Now, we’ll go under this new super portfolio that will be headed by Peter Dutton. Now, as I explained to you last night and in fact, the Prime Minister today said this, it will be more along the lines of the British Home Office. It plays a fundamental role in a range of different areas which include the threats of terrorism, preventing crime at home, controlling borders, issuing passports and visas, fire prevention and rescue, illegal drug use, a range of others. Anyway, this is the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing it today.

Malcolm Turnbull: In these difficult times, repeated reviews and task forces are not enough. We need to take more decisive action. We can’t take an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to security arrangements. Not least because our adversaries are agile and nimble. Constantly adapting and evolving to defeat our defences. We need more enduring and better-integrated arrangements for our domestic and border security.

Ross Greenwood: Can I tell you one of the very best people to speak to about this is Ric Smith. Now Ric Smith, currently a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Importantly before this, he was amongst other things, the Head of the Pacific Africa and Middle East Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He also acted as Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade between December 1992 and May 1993.

He took up the role as Australian ambassador for China in February 1996. Was there until the year 2000. Also, in 2002 served as Australian ambassador to Indonesia. He came back to Canberra to take up duty as the Secretary of the Department of Defence in November 2002. He stayed there until his retirement in 2006. In 2008, he led a review for the Rudd Government into Australia’s Homeland and Border Security and he wrote a report into that. He’s on the line right now. Many thanks for your time, Ric.

Interview with Ric Smith, Former Secretary of the Department of Defence

Ric Smith: Ross, it’s a pleasure.

Ross Greenwood: Do you believe that the government has done the right thing in creating this new super portfolio under Peter Dutton?

Ric Smith: I believe that what they’ve done is good at the big level. Its optics are going to be good. They are, but I think there are a lot of questions of detail to be resolved. Ross, it’s not unlike governments these days, they make very big announcements details to follow and this is one of those.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. One of the things that you said in your report, and I’m coming from your summary and conclusions, is that basically some of these portfolios can be very large and unwieldy. It’s not as though the individual agencies that ultimately will come under this new super portfolio, the homeland office if you like. That they’re not necessarily performing so poorly and it’s not a good necessarily a guarantee they’ll perform better if they all come together.

Ric Smith: Yes. I advocated in that report, not one department based on, say, the US model, not one department, but rather one community of very well joined-up agencies. At that time, as I say, the benchmark was the US Department of Homeland Security, which didn’t have much to commend it for us. They’ve taken now the UK Home Affairs Office which has a bit more in common with us but still, the UK is different.

Ross Greenwood: The one thing you said is the departments and agencies concerned must be well connected and network and cultural technical skill and other barriers minimized. Now, that obviously is a very welcome thing if that occurs. The truth is if they do come together under the one super portfolio, is there any guarantee that those types of networks and those communications will exist?

Ric Smith: Well, that was my point really. It doesn’t matter a lot of what the framework they’re in. What matters is wherever they are located that they should be well connected particularly through their information systems, the computer systems, platforms and so on. They must be able to communicate with each other at high levels of secure classification very quickly and they must be able to share databases. If they can’t do that and if their systems are not robust in terms of being protected, then they are not functioning well.

What I would be seeking from the government, in this case, is an assurance that that remains the objective and that these systems can be brought together and properly resourced. It’ll cost a lot of money. It’ll take time.

Ross Greenwood: From an individual’s position, from a business’s point of view they would like to feel as though that they are well protected by the government agencies. That in fact, corruption is at a minimal level, if you like, in terms of our systems. It may be our cyber systems that security is very robust, that immigration and our borders are tightly controlled, that illegal drug use– And we know that there have been record hauls coming in recent times, that is kept to an absolute minimum. The point is that the home office in the UK has got a very long tradition. It’s whether Australia can create that type of environment very, very quickly under this new portfolio.

Ric Smith: This is a very good point because, you see, there’s a spectrum of crime that leads to petty crimes to the more serious crime to organized narcotics crime, right across to cyber. Along that spectrum somewhere is terrorism. A remarkable number of the same players show up in different areas of crime. If they can share their databases that is Austrac, the Crime Commission, Federal Police, ASIAL. Even dare I say adhere the tax office you’ll see a lot of names in common. That’s what I mean by being well connected.

Ross Greenwood: I do know today that the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan who’s always very well connected wrote that, “The super ministry would be too big and cumbersome for any one minister to handle effectively in a meaningful way. We are likely to get, even in the best outcome, some of the problems with effective ministerial direction that we currently get in the Defence Department.” Is that one of the real problems that Dutton or any future minister might find it difficult, unwieldy even to be able to try and get control of all these agencies?

Ric Smith: I think he faces a very big challenge in that regard, Ross. I really do. It’s a big portfolio and a very diverse range of activities. Don’t forget that also in that portfolio is the old Immigration Department. Now you all know that National Policy is that immigration has been at the heart of National Policy for Australia for 70 years. If we’ve gone done 2% plus growth recently, it’s because we’re still bringing in 200,000 people a year with the right skills.

Now, if we lose sight of that part of the portfolio then I think that’s a national loss. I’d be concerned, yes, that Peter Dutton has a huge portfolio and that this very important area of national policy might run second to other aspects, other elements of the portfolio.

Ross Greenwood: That being the case, just a final one for you, will Australians– Once this portfolio is created will I go to bed safer at night-time?

Ric Smith: I think that they will. I don’t think that there’ll be– They certainly won’t be any less safe and provided they get the systems together. As you know, always a challenge in a merger, then we will be better off but there’s a big challenge in both regards.

Ross Greenwood: Can I just say I really appreciate your time this evening. That is Ric Smith, the former defence secretary, but as you can hear, the man who also wrote and concluded a plan in regards for a Review of Homeland and Border Security for the Rudd Government. Ric, I appreciate your time here on the program this evening.

Ric Smith: Good, Ross. Good to talk.

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