Bill Shorten can’t be accused of lacking flexibility – or sensitivity to the risk of getting wedged on national security.
Polling shows Shorten is vulnerable on security issues.
“I’d like to be convinced this is about national security, not Malcom Turnbull’s job security,” Shorten observed at the time.
Now, he has said he will not pursue “change for change’s sake”.
In his criticism of Turnbull bestowing expanded ministerial responsibilities on Peter Dutton, Shorten had a point.
Mistakenly, Turnbull sought to bolster a Praetorian guard on his right, namely Dutton and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, by drawing them into his inner circle.
Both repaid that preferment by turning on him. Turnbull’s poor political judgement was manifest in those attempts.
In Shorten’s case, his resistance to the idea of stripping away some of the powers of the Home Affairs ministry accrued under Dutton has less to do with the merits of the case than it does with electoral politics.
Labor’s overwhelming concern is not to be outflanked on border security and immigration, both responsibilities of Home Affairs. Any sign of backsliding on these issues would be seized upon by the Coalition.
Shorten is under pressure from Labor’s left to consider an amnesty for asylum seekers, held in some cases in offshore detention centres for five years.
The case for such amnesties would seem to be compelling – unless you are an aspiring prime minister anxious to avoid a security wedge.
In considering options for a rejigging of a Home Affairs ministry cobbled together by Turnbull when he felt under pressure from the right, Shorten should consider returning responsibility for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to the Attorney-General.
In Mark Dreyfus Labor has an able shadow Attorney-General who could be expected to oversee ASIO with the sensitivity required.
Removing that responsibility from then Attorney-General George Brandis and handing it to Dutton caused significant tensions within the Coalition government.
It was no secret in Canberra that Brandis and then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop resisted moves that would enhance Dutton’s range of responsibilities.
They lost, although the Attorney-General did retain authority for ASIO surveillance warrants.
So, the question becomes: what is in the country’s best interests when it comes to deciding whether a ministry with responsibilities for the Australian “para-military” Border Force, the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, cyber-security, and immigration is too unwieldly?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to acknowledge that unwieldiness when he appointed a separate immigration minister within Home Affairs, but without cabinet rank.
Dutton retained his Home Affairs portfolio, and thus oversight of immigration. Newly-appointed immigration minister David Coleman sits outside the cabinet.
Labor would be wise to restore cabinet rank to the immigration minister. It should also consider detaching the portfolio from Home Affairs, given the sensitivities involved in administering a contentious area.
Immigration and citizenship responsibilities range across a swathe of government activities. They include administering the immigration intake itself, managing the country’s refugee programme, and dealing with the myriad discretionary immigration issues that cross a minister’s desk every day.
If we accept Australia is a “country of immigrants” – which it is – this would seem to dictate the need for a stand-alone ministry separate from the policing responsibilities of a Home Affairs portfolio, where the focus is on security.
Shorten should take this on board.
Apart from the Home Affairs ministry, the government has also embarked on a sweeping reform of its intelligence assessment processes.
An Office of National Intelligence will be established to oversee intelligence gathering and assessment, including the work of the Office of National Assessments.
This is a significant reform aimed at strengthening prime ministerial oversight – and coordination – of intelligence agencies. It grows out of an Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community led by former senior public servant Michael L’Estrange.
Both agencies distil intelligence provided by their respective country’s intelligence agencies to the president in the case of the US, and prime minister in Britain. In the US the Director of National Intelligence is a cabinet level post.
National security is a highly complex area of government. It requires careful monitoring and coordination. Failure of the intelligence establishment was writ large in the disastrous rush to war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence and politically compromised intelligence analysis.
But back to Shorten and his change of heart on the Home Affairs “super” ministry.
In July last year, when Turnbull announced his shake-up of the intelligence and security agencies and establishment of a new Home Affairs ministry after peremptory cabinet consideration, Shorten expressed concern about what appeared to be a rushed job. He said:
I don’t think this is a captain’s call, I think this is Peter Dutton’s call.
I’m very concerned these proposals aren’t being pushed by our security agencies, they’re being pushed by Peter Dutton.
Twelve months later, Dutton as a Labor bogeyman has faded somewhat, along with Shorten’s own opposition to the Dutton super ministry.
That reassessment might make sense given that a good deal of disruption would be caused by unscrambling the egg. But if the opposition were to win government, it should subject the new ministry to an assessment of just what has been achieved, and the extent to which its activities may have been politicised.
Community confidence in such a body would be enhanced if a less controversial minister than Dutton was in charge. Playing politics with national security needs to be avoided.