Controversy over new Aussie home affairs dept

Supersized unit is unnecessary, counterproductive, say critics

Australia has brought together its spies, police, border and immigration officials under one roof, despite critics warning that the new supersized security department is unnecessary and counterproductive.

The controversial Department of Home Affairs, launched with little fanfare on Dec 20, aims to improve coordination between domestic security agencies in tasks such as tracking militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) returning from the Middle East.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said that besides terrorism and counter-espionage, the department would also focus on drug importation, smuggling, gangs and organised crime, cybercrime and child exploitation.

"(It will) give ourselves the best chance of trying to deal with the modern reality of counter-terrorism activities… staring down the threat of espionage, dealing with incursions across our borders," he told Channel Nine.

Modelled on Britain's Home Office, the department brings together a broad range of agencies that make up Australia's domestic security apparatus. These include the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, transport security and emergency services, as well as the immigration department.

A statement by the department described its creation as "part of the most significant change to Australia's national security and intelligence arrangements in decades".

Supporters said it would help the government to "act quickly, seamlessly and decisively across agencies".

But a 2015 review of Australia's counter-terrorism efforts concluded that such a department would place an excessive emphasis on domestic - rather than international - terrorism and "would be unhelpful in the current fluid threat environment".

It also said counter-terrorism officials may have to compete with other crime-fighting agencies for attention and resources.

Analysts say the old system had worked well and had repeatedly thwarted terror plots. Some 14 imminent attacks have been foiled in Australia since 2014.

Political analysts have suggested that the creation of the department was at least partly motivated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's desire to satisfy Mr Dutton.

The latter's support has helped Mr Turnbull, a progressive, to avoid efforts by the ruling coalition's right-wing members to undermine his leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Controversy over new Aussie home affairs dept'. Print Edition | Subscribe