The Department of Home Affairs – Yes or No?

12 February 2018

Last year’s announcement of the inauguration of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) caused a stir.

Some are concerned the merging of Australia’s security agencies will cause discord, while others insist it will only lead to the efficiencies of scale that a large organisation can provide.

On 8 February 2018, Professor John Blaxland, the Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, offered his own thoughts on the matter. His message? That a degree of caution is needed.

“I am concerned that the changes will potentially leave opportunities for things to fall through the cracks,” he says.

“What will probably save us from that is very good people making it work despite the new arrangements.”

Blaxland outlines how the new system risks overturning a legacy of reform which has, over the years, worked to form the Australian Intelligence Community known today. That system, he argues, is “accountable, collegiate, responsive and, by and large, effective… It was working well, folks.”

The DHA, by contrast, is a large organisation. In Professor Blaxland’s view, it unnecessarily concentrates power and confuses the lines of reporting and responsibility. He offers the absorption of the Department of Immigration into the DHA as one example, saying that, “While the title of immigration has gone away from the Department of Home Affairs I think there is a strong argument to be made that the function remains.” He questions the diffusion of responsibility, given the significance of immigration to Australia.

He also points out that there is no public document recommending the move. In fact, the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review which, although released at the same time as the DHA announcement, “doesn’t even mention the idea of home affairs – not once.”

Launching such a scheme without a clearer rationale and relying on trial and error reform is risky, Blaxland says.

Finally, he warns of the new structure, “it reduces the contestability of advice to government. It funnels it through one Secretary and one Minister.”

He argues that this bottleneck is problematic, saying, “Why set up one critical point of potential failure?”

When asked whether the system might be able to piggy-back its success on the models of the US and UK, Professor Blaxland replies, “It [the DHA] is a radical new system that seeks to emulate some of the modelling of the UK… but you can’t build those sinews overnight, by an edict.” 

Professor Blaxland’s presentation was the first in a series of public events speaking to the topic hosted by the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank which focuses on national security and defence issues. Their next event will be held on 15 March 2018. 

You can listen to the audio of Professor Blaxland’s speech the Royal United Services Institute's website here.

Image: Michael Masters, Wikimedia Commons.

By CAP student correspondent Georgie Juszczyk.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team