Acting beyond official recommendations, Malcolm Turnbull has created a super ministry for Peter Dutton – possibly to shore up his own leadership.

By Karen Middleton.

Dutton’s rise to Home Affairs super ministry

On Wednesday night, the man just promoted into one of the biggest jobs in the government, soon-to-be Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, entered what is not normally enemy territory: the Melbourne studio of Sky News’s Bolt program.

But host Andrew Bolt was not in an entirely friendly mood.

A strong backer of former prime minister Tony Abbott, Bolt sees Dutton’s elevation – and the creation of a super national security ministry against the weight of expert opinion – as a move to shore up Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

By accepting the new portfolio, which places responsibility for the nation’s domestic spy agency Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police, the Criminal Intelligence Commission and some other agencies alongside Immigration and Border Protection under Dutton’s command, Bolt suggested the minister was complicit. And he went in hard.

“This is to please you, isn’t it?” Bolt asserted. “You are a very powerful bloke now. You’re minding Malcolm Turnbull’s back. You’re the conservative. You’ve changed from supporting Tony Abbott to supporting Malcolm Turnbull. This is to please a very ambitious and capable minister: you.”

Dutton responded calmly that the portfolio change was made “with the truest of intent” and he was always loyal to an incumbent prime minister.

“If I don’t have confidence in the prime minister or my leader, the onus is on me to resign from cabinet,” Dutton said.

But criticism of Turnbull’s rearrangement – modelled on the British Home Office and initiated by the prime minister after consultations with his British counterpart and his own department but without cabinet imprimatur – extends beyond motive to substance. It also extends beyond Bolt.

One of the authors of the official history of ASIO, the Australian National University’s Professor John Blaxland, says moving ASIO away from the attorney-general’s portfolio for the first time in its 68-year history is risky.

“I’m really very concerned that this is half-baked,” Blaxland told The Saturday Paper.

Under the change, the attorney-general will no longer oversee ASIO’s operations. But in a reconfigured role the prime minister describes as the “minister for oversight and integrity”, he would retain the power to authorise its warrants.

It is not clear whether the home affairs minister will also be involved with warrants and whether the attorney-general’s ongoing power will require him to be continually briefed, leaving ASIO effectively serving two masters.

Making the announcement on Tuesday, Turnbull said details were yet to be worked out. But he strongly defended his security infrastructure changes.

“Ad hoc and incremental adjustments to our national security arrangements do not adequately prepare us for the complex security future we face,” Turnbull said. “In these difficult times, repeated reviews and taskforces 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.”

But Blaxland fears the mega-merger could diminish responsibility. “Who is accountable for implementation, if it’s not the guy who signs the warrant? You need to give one minister responsibility for warranting and then accounting for that warrant. This is a deeply worrying trend, in terms of moving away from tried and tested methods.”

Blaxland says having an attorney-general perform both roles, as he does now, means he is equipped to challenge warrant requests.

“They challenge them all the time,” Blaxland says. “A good attorney-general will do that. They are not patsies. They do this for good reason.”

Blaxland says having one minister control so many different agencies will reduce the scope to contest policy proposals in cabinet. He says that when the United States established its Department of Homeland Security and Britain its Home Office, Australia was not behind but in front.

Those overseas amalgamations had emerged from the attacks of September 11, 2001. But Australia had already thoroughly examined and overhauled its security infrastructure through the Hope royal commission in the 1970s and other investigations following the 1978 Hilton bombing and the Combe-Ivanov espionage affair.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s head of counterterrorism, Jacinta Carroll, says having ASIO no longer report to the attorney-general is “the one thing that’s controversial and raises some questions”.

“It’s not clear how the attorney-general will bring to mind all the things he needs to bring to mind in deciding a warrant,” Carroll says.

She says it’s possible to establish appropriate arrangements and procedures to ensure he is still briefed well enough to make decisions but they need to be carefully thought through, ultimately providing a strengthened decision-making process.

A 2015 review of counterterrorism machinery did not recommend rearranging portfolios. “A restructure or reshuffle of national security agencies is not the answer,” it said. A home office could work, the review found, but only as a “small, flexible co-ordinating department”.

A 2008 review of homeland and border security, commissioned by the Rudd government, also explicitly rejected the idea of merging existing organisations into one large agency, which tended to be “inward-looking, siloed and slow to adapt”.

It warned such a move could jeopardise the non-security-related functions in some agencies. Some argue immigration falls into this category.

As the new ministry was announced, Attorney-General George Brandis said another minister could now give national security “100 per cent of his time and attention”.

“Much though my focus has been on national security, it has not been able to be an exclusive focus,” Brandis said, insisting he was “strongly” supportive of the “historic” reform.

“The announcements that the prime minister has made this morning will correct that anomaly.”

But there is concern those aspects of immigration that are not security-related could be neglected under the new structure. The 2008 security review’s author, former defence department secretary Ric Smith, says the new structure initially “presents well”.

“The optics are good for the government,” Smith told The Saturday Paper. “But a lot of it is detail and there is devil in that detail – including legislative detail. I think the risks in it relate to making the two signoffs on warrants work.”

Smith says disruptions during the 12-month establishment phase are also a risk. So is the price. “There won’t be cost savings,” he says. “There will be costs.”

There is much stronger support for other measures announced alongside the Home Affairs change, resulting from a government-commissioned independent review of intelligence by former foreign affairs department and cabinet secretary Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant, with Sir Iain Lobban as a consultant.

On the review’s recommendation, Turnbull has foreshadowed a new statutory Office of National Intelligence to sit within the prime minister’s portfolio, anchoring what he calls the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in 40 years.

The office will subsume the existing Office of National Assessments, co-ordinating analysis and briefing the prime minister.

The Australian Signals Directorate will become a statutory authority and stay within the Defence Department. The overseas spy agency, Australian Secret Intelligence Service, will stay in foreign affairs.

The review recommended more funding and more staff for security agencies. It did not recommend the Home Affairs change.

Malcolm Turnbull insisted consideration of such a change was not within its terms of reference. But the terms explicitly included examination of the “relationship and engagement” between all the agencies now joining Home Affairs, including the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It also made other machinery-of-government recommendations, including what should – and should not – fall within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It did not actively investigate combining agencies in the way the prime minister has done.

That means those agencies understood to have expressed concerns privately in the past – the AFP and ASIO in particular – do not have their views recorded.

Some of the critics remain unconvinced.

“Can you point to a single problem, a single example of, say, lack of co-operation between the agencies, that this is now going to stop?” Andrew Bolt asked Peter Dutton.

“Yes,” Dutton replied, nominating the circumstances surrounding Sydney’s 2014 Lindt cafe siege.

Dutton suggested the new structure could help avoid the kind of “breakdown of communication between the agencies” that occurred before and during the siege.

“So how does this fix that?” Bolt asked. Dutton suggested having agencies talking more frequently and exchanging information and intelligence and “understanding the strategic direction” would make “a big difference”.

Bolt pointed out the agencies had already made adjustments as a result of the Lindt siege. He said Australia had had more success preventing terrorist attacks than Britain and asked again what problem still existed that only this change could fix.

Dutton gave a long response. “I’m going to make sure that we have the ability to share information where it’s appropriate to share it,” he said. “At the moment I think there is protection, rightly, around some of the protected information and sensitive information that they’ve got now. In many instances, I think that is entirely appropriate. In other instances, I think there is an argument for it to be shared with a law-enforcement agency.”

He said that could “improve the situation here”.

Dutton said Turnbull had determined that instead of having five ministers responsible across government for various security agencies, examining the advice and briefing the leader, it would be more effective to have just one – not acknowledging that at least three other portfolios will still oversee intelligence agencies.

Some security experts suggest the single mega-minister is precisely what may create a problem under the new structure, which separates the management of ASIO from the scrutiny of its warrant requests.

Asked about Brandis’s look of discomfort standing beside Turnbull in the prime minister’s courtyard on Tuesday, Dutton suggested it may have been Canberra’s winter chill.

But the frostiness extends indoors to the cabinet room.

Both Brandis and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have spoken out against the proposal in the past. In favour was Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Treasurer Scott Morrison, who also advocated for the change as immigration minister.

Turnbull is adopting a proposal believed to have originated in the immigration department and rejected repeatedly in various versions previously.

Bolt’s Sky News colleague and Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, revealed a little of the thinking behind the most recent rejection.

“We looked at this very carefully and, you know, on face value it is very tempting,” Credlin said. “But expert after expert said it will not work… You do not want to funnel the entire national security apparatus through one minister. I think that’s a risk.”

Expert after expert seem still to say the same. But Turnbull dismisses their concerns.

“The arguments that have been made against it in the past have been pretty much along the lines of, ‘Oh it’s a bit hard, it’s too much trouble,’ ” Turnbull said on Thursday.

“I have not received objections from our agencies. The bottom line is I’m the prime minister. I make these decisions.”

Tony Abbott has joined the chorus against. “The advice back then was that we didn’t need the kind of massive bureaucratic change that it seems the prime minister has in mind,” he told 2GB of his time as prime minister. “I can only assume that the advice has changed since then.”

But just recently, Abbott suggested he wasn’t personally against the idea. “I can see the argument for a Home Office,” he said a month ago. “I could see the argument for a Home Office when I was prime minister.”

Like Andrew Bolt, the Labor opposition believes the move is more about elevating Dutton and protecting Turnbull than fixing a security problem.

And like Tony Abbott, the opposition has also changed its position.

A decade ago, Labor favoured a Home-Affairs-style portfolio and created a junior one but kept it under the attorney-general. Now the party is suspicious.

“It is sort of like the government have come up with a solution and now they have got to find the problem to justify the solution,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said on Wednesday.

“If the government wants to do this, we are not going to necessarily stand in their way. But I want to hear from the experts. I’d like to be convinced this is about national security not Malcolm Turnbull’s job security.”

There are suspicions about the announcement’s timing, too.

The next Newspoll is in the field this weekend, due for publication early next week.

The previous one was the 15th consecutive bad poll for the Coalition since Turnbull took the leadership, having nominated his predecessor’s 30 bad polls as a key reason for change.

Turnbull has spun the news coverage out over the week, hoping to ensure as many Australians as possible know the government is beefing up national security – traditionally a vote-winner for the Coalition. He will be hoping an uptick follows.

As much as he is focused on national security and counterterrorism, he is also putting a great deal of effort into combatting the enemy within.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2017 as "The rise and rise of Peter Dutton".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

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

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.