In July 2017, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he was to create a new construct to promote national security – the Department of Home Affairs.
Renowned intelligence and security expert, Professor John Blaxland, publicly criticised the new governance arrangement on the grounds of contestability and disputed its rationale – which, he argued, was largely to achieve “greater bureaucratic efficiency”.
Ahead of the Australian Financial Review National Security Summit Professor Blaxland spoke to us about why he believes the new governance model “lacks sufficient intellectual rigour”, along with his fresh recommendations for revitalising the Australian Intelligence Community.
Fixing what wasn’t broken
In 1978, following the Hilton Hotel Bombings, Justin Robert Marsden Hope orchestrated two royal commissions and a protective security review which, in turn, led to multiple intelligence reforms in Australia.
The model which ensued, Blaxland argued, was a best practice model which was able to stand the test of time, “effectively diffusing power, whilst maintaining clear lines of accountability”.
It consisted of five separate organisations, collectively referred to as the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC):
• The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)
• The Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)
• The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)
• The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)
• The Office of National Assessments (ONA)
(A sixth organisation -The Australian Geo-Spatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO) – was also added at a later date).
“Within this governance framework, the Attorney General was responsible for issuing a warrant; ensuring it was appropriately resourced; and that it satisfied both legal guidelines and national intelligence priorities”, Blaxland explained.
In 2004 and 2011 two respective intelligence reviews were conducted and the framework remained largely intact.
Post 9/11, there were some changes with the Intelligence Services Act 2001 – however, this was mostly in the form of greater Ministerial accountability for each of the portfolios.
In 2017, a third periodic review was carried out, proposing six key areas of reform, which Blaxland described as “logical and graduated extensions of the existing framework”. He praised the review and commended the authors for their robust analysis.
At the same time, however, the Home Affairs model was created – “seemingly conflated yet markedly inconsistent with the intelligence review recommendations in terms of its intellectual substance”. Blaxland criticised the Home Affairs model, which he believes is an “inadequately justified deviation” from the former arrangements.
Losing hope, post Hope
Blaxland has publicly opposed Turnbull’s desire to deviate from the governance model which ensued following Hope’s review and reform of the AIC.
“The stout contestability that was implicit in the former framework appears to be diminished in the new construct”, he told us.
Of primary concern is the centralisation of power along with the diffusion of accountability.
“There is a worry that the Home Affairs construct is seeing an undue aggregation of authority and power that could undermine confidence in the robust mechanisms that had evolved over decades”, he said.
“The Attorney General (AG) is gaining responsibility for the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security – two crucial oversight agencies.
“The latter has the enduring powers of a Royal Commission and reports directly to the Prime Minister. This is a significant power widely recognised within the intelligence community as generating a healthy fear of being audited”.
“It is difficult to understand why a decision was made to alter its line of reporting”.
“On top of this, the new model undermines the connection between Ministerial authority and Ministerial responsibility¸particularly for ASIO”, he continued.
“Although the AG remains accountable for the authorisation of warrants, it would appear the AG is not responsible for seeing the process through to completion”.
Through dealings with the Secretary, Blaxland is aware of internal arguments for the new Home Affairs construct, regarding “efficiencies of scale”, and “the need for organisations to collaborate more closely”.
While he believes the arguments are compelling, to a degree, he added that, “when collaboration comes at the cost of reduced contestability to government, the rationale is somewhat flawed”.
Moving from politics to public interest
Based on the above reasoning, Blaxland concluded that the reforms were more about politics than public interest and believes the rationale upon which the Home Affairs model is formed lacks the kind of considered modelling that Hope’s royal commissions and the 2017 intelligence review delivered.
“In essence, there is insufficient substance and intellectual credibility behind the new Home Affairs arrangement. The Australian people need an explanation as to why this was justified outside the scope of the kind of review arrangements which have worked so well in the past”, he said.
“To mitigate the risk associated with a reduction in contestability and the aggregation of too much power, we need some robust mechanisms in place to ensure power is not abused.
“While some mechanisms already exist to avoid overlap and enhance prioritisation within the new system, it is important that we consider the breadth and depth of outcomes that could ensue from such a framework”.
While Blaxland has gone public with many of his views to date, he will be revealing further, fresh recommendations for reforming the AIC at the Australian Financial Review National Security Summit – to be held December 4, 2018 at the Hyatt Hotel, Canberra.
Joining him on the stage are Australia’s Chief policy makers, analysts, and national security experts.