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As the PM and foreign minister attempt to smooth relations with Indonesia, calls increase for a consolidated approach to national security. By Karen Middleton.

Weighing the priorities of homeland security

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo at the Indian Ocean Rim Association leaders’ summit in Jakarta this week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / MICK TSIKAS

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks shook up the security infrastructure in the United States and across the globe, successive Australian governments have entertained the idea of an American-style department of homeland security.

Prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott both rejected the reconfiguration a dozen years apart, and it was also examined by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The Labor governments came closest to implementation, with Rudd commissioning a homeland and border security review in 2008.

This week, the review’s author, former defence department secretary Ric Smith, reaffirmed the view he put at the time: that a homeland security department was not required. 

Several others, including former foreign affairs chief Peter Varghese, who previously headed the Office of National Assessments, told Fairfax Media they thought the existing infrastructure was working well enough. The last review to look at the issue, by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2015, ruled it out. But as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo press the case again – arguing their department is best placed to oversee a centralised agency – another voice in the security community has emerged arguing in favour of placing security overwatch under a single banner.

Now the director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, former chief of army Peter Leahy believes the time for a homeland security department has arrived.

“I think there’s an argument for something like a homeland security organisation because of the problem of multiple federal agencies co-operating and collaborating in times of emergency,” Leahy tells The Saturday Paper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a military man, Leahy says he is “not much in favour of co-operation and collaboration”, preferring “command and control and a centralised budget”. 

“There is a strong argument for a single, empowered cabinet minister overseeing all of our domestic security arrangements,” he says. “Logic would say it should be an operationally oriented department. Immigration and Border Protection seems to be the logical place, seeing as they already have an important operational and strategic orientation.”

Leahy questions the view that things are working well enough now.

“At the moment, our approach is fragmented and there is a need to consolidate the functions … We haven’t had a crisis yet. Do we have to wait for our own 9/11? Why don’t we prepare for what would seem inevitable?”

Some advocates for change dispute that there hasn’t been a crisis, citing the Sydney Lindt cafe siege of December 2014 as an example, when better co-ordination was needed. But the author of the Rudd review, Ric Smith, says he doubts this kind of change would have affected how the Lindt cafe incident was managed, as it was a NSW Police matter.

On placing homeland security under immigration, he says: “What would be the reason for it? What would be achieved by it? It doesn’t matter really where they are, as long as they are properly joined up.”

He is firm in his view that, should a change proceed, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service – the overseas spies based in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – not be included.

Leahy suggests having separate and autonomous security agencies is not the best approach in a crisis.

“The inability to develop a national security budget gives a powerful indication of just how independent the agencies are at the moment. More centralised direction and control of both policy and operations would be a good thing.”

In 2008, the Attorney-General’s Department spearheaded work on such a budget in the lead-up to what became the first national security statement. “Ours must be an integrated approach, based on a clear-sighted view of our long-term national security interests,” Rudd told parliament in December that year.

The statement foreshadowed an updated white paper on defence, another on counterterrorism and an energy security white paper. That last paper never came to pass. Rudd was moved aside for Julia Gillard 18 months later. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now borrowed at least one of Rudd’s ideas, placing energy security among his highest priorities.

Rudd established the position of national security adviser, appointing the now director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Duncan Lewis as the first to fill it. But he did not proceed with bringing all of the agencies together, reflecting Ric Smith’s advice.

In January 2013, then PM Julia Gillard built the security statement into a full-blown national security strategy that nominated a figure and a breakdown for a “homeland security and border protection” budget – $3.442 billion overall, with the largest allocations to border security and law enforcement, followed by cybersecurity, bio- and pandemic security, critical infrastructure, and issues including transport, crisis management and emergency assistance.

Tony Abbott’s reassessment of the idea in 2014 was at the instigation of the then immigration minister Scott Morrison and divided the cabinet, with Julie Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis among those opposed.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bishop then told The Australian: “If there were such a proposal, it would have to demonstrate any current failures in co-operation between the intelligence agencies, federal and state police and defence, and I am not aware of any such failures.”

In 2014, the idea was seen in the context of Morrison’s personal ambitions for promotion. It is perhaps ironic that the current immigration minister and proponent of the change, Peter Dutton, is now the one being touted as a future Liberal leadership contender. But Bishop and Brandis are understood to hold the same views now as they did then, dubious about the value and the cost of establishing a homeland security department. Defence Minister Marise Payne and Justice Minister Michael Keenan also oppose the idea, as does ASIO and the Australian Federal Police.

Bishop and Turnbull were in Indonesia this week when news emerged suggesting consideration of a mega security department – which was foreshadowed earlier this year – had progressed. “I am not going to comment on speculation about administrative arrangements,” was all Turnbull would say on the matter.

He’s understood to be considering the change as part of a ministerial reshuffle earmarked for some time after the May budget when, on current planning, Brandis is expected to leave politics to take up a diplomatic post in London. But none of that is firm yet.

In Indonesia, the focus was on the related issue of regional security as uncertainty surrounding the new United States government’s plans for Asian engagement under President Donald Trump had the Australian government seeking to strengthen trade and security ties around the neighbourhood. 

Turnbull’s quick trip to Jakarta to attend the Indonesian-initiated first leaders’ meeting attached to what is usually a meeting of foreign ministers at the Indian Ocean Rim Association was an important reinforcement of the two countries’ security relationship.

Both Turnbull and Bishop deflected previous Indonesian suggestions that the countries may consider “joint patrols” in the South China Sea – a matter of extreme sensitivity amid Chinese and American brinksmanship in an area subject to a web of territorial claims. They chose instead to talk only of increased “co-operation”.

Peter Leahy says that sort of co-operation should include joint on-water activities and eventually greater capacity to work together operationally. “I’d be very much in favour of increased maritime co-operation, particularly in the seas between Australia and Indonesia, south of the archipelago to start with – support on border protection, customs, fisheries and common maritime interests including safety at sea,” he says. “That would be a good thing. I would have an ultimate aim of a degree of interoperability between Australian and Indonesian military forces … I think we can start south of the archipelago and look at the opportunities later on to support Indonesian interests in the vicinity of the Nantuna Islands. But we don’t need to be rushing that.”

Indonesia claims the Natuna Islands, in the southern part of the South China Sea. Their area overlaps slightly with the larger part of the sea that China claims, within what it calls its “nine-dash line” of demarcation.

In defence of his view, Leahy cites the importance of securing Australia’s trade routes to Asia and “common regional defence and security interests in the region”. 

The 2013 defence white paper spelt out in plainer language the obvious but very sensitive reason for regional vigilance. “The archipelago to Australia’s north shapes our strategic geography,” it says. “Denying an adversary our air and sea approaches in the archipelago is vitally important for deterring and defeating attacks on Australian territory.”

Based on current circumstances, the unnamed but most likely “adversary” in that scenario is China.

“As Indonesia comprises much of this archipelago, Australia’s strong partnership with Indonesia remains our most important regional strategic relationship,” the white paper reports, “and the partnership continues to deepen and broaden in support of our significant shared interests.”

Like Australian leaders before him, Turnbull and his emissaries have had some patching up to do in the Indonesia relationship. Most recently, military ties were temporarily suspended after an Indonesian instructor took offence at a special forces’ joint military training program at Perth’s Campbell Barracks that included some derogatory cultural references to Indonesia’s philosophical national doctrine, Pancasila, and appeared to countenance independence for Indonesian-governed West Papua.

Chief of Army Angus Campbell was dispatched to Jakarta to apologise last month and ties were formally restored when Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Australia recently. But the issue of the West Papuan independence movement continues to simmer in the background. Indonesia is vehemently opposed to any talk of separation.

Julie Bishop discussed Papua with Indonesia’s co-ordinating minister for maritime affairs, General Luhut Pandjaitan. “For us, we approach the Papua issue from an anthropological perspective,” Pandjaitan said afterwards. “We would love other countries to visit Papua to look at what’s really going on.”

Bishop has agreed to do that.

In the minefield of issues that can damage the bilateral security relationship, this is among the most sensitive.

Almost 11 years ago, Australia and Indonesia signed a security agreement – the Lombok Treaty – that bans both countries from taking part in or supporting any activity that constitutes a threat to “the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity” of the other, including by anyone seeking to use its territory “for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other party”.

At a time when Australia needs Indonesian co-operation on combating terrorism – especially in relation to returning fighters who have served with Daesh – Bishop will be treading carefully. Getting Indonesia offside could become a much bigger problem for homeland security than the shape of government departments or whose name is on the door.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Security counsel". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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