Inside Story

It’s time to abandon the Home Affairs experiment

Labor’s changes to the controversial portfolio don’t go anywhere near far enough

Paddy Gourley 27 November 2023 1914 words

Some way to go: Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

First published 3 August 2023

Sharp-eyed investigations by Michael Bachelard and Nick McKenzie in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald over the past couple of weeks have graphically laid out failures in the federal Department of Home Affairs. The headlines give a taste: “Millions of Dollars in Detention Money Went to Pacific Politicians,” “Dangerous Albanian Criminals Make a Mockery of the Immigration System,” “Manus Contractor Boss Paid $1.2m to Mother Working in Home Affairs,” “Boats, Traders and Bad Guys: How a Super Department Has Come Unstuck,” “Minister Invokes Corruption Watchdog Over Detention Scandal,” “Former Minister Takes Aim at Home Affairs”.

While Bachelard and McKenzie have very capably described the failure of the Home Affairs experiment, the problems have also been shown, if less floridly expressed, in many auditor-general’s reports and well-informed analyses by two former senior immigration department officials, Peter Hughes and Abul Rizvi, in the public policy journal Pearls & Irritations.

It’s a glum tale. Coming on the heels of robodebt, Home Affairs represents another painful breakdown in federal public administration, bringing distress to untold numbers of people and tearing at the wellbeing of society.

How did it come to this?

The creation of the Home Affairs portfolio disregarded generally accepted principles governing the allocation of functions to departments. For example:

• It brought together a set of unlike and sometimes incompatible responsibilities — not quite as crazy as, say, combining health and defence but not far from it. Immigration has been infected by a security mindset with an overwhelming focus on keeping people, especially boat arrivals, out of Australia and fretting about the bona fides of those who manage to get in.

• The notion that major government functions should have their own departments was forgotten or ignored. Immigration has more fundamentally changed the nature of Australia than any other function of government, and will continue to do so. In Home Affairs, immigration was relegated.

• The Home Affairs portfolio included intelligence-gathering and other agencies that should be kept as far away from related policymaking as possible so that policy doesn’t end up determining what intelligence is collected. It’s salutary to recall how the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States fitted its facts around the Bush administration’s policy on the invasion of Iraq, providing assurances about weapons of mass destruction that inconveniently didn’t exist. Facts should inform policy rather than the other way around. That’s why we have an independent Australian Bureau of Statistics.

• Home Affairs is egregiously top-heavy and doesn’t seem to have clear lines of responsibility. Because its secretary appears to control the money, a busybody occupant of the top job can pry into parts of the organisation that should be left to get on with their work.

• The portfolio was given a meaningless title, Home Affairs. It’s yet another manifestation of the modern habit of giving organisations names that give no idea of what they do.

No one has advanced a case in favour of the Home Affairs portfolio for one simple reason: there isn’t one. When it was created in 2017, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “a structure to meet the challenges of the times.” More than that, it was the most “significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements and their oversight in more than forty years.” Stuff and nonsense.

Home Affairs was political and bureaucratic conniving on a grand, misguided scale that found fertile ground in the exaggerated national security apprehensions of the times and community alarm about asylum seekers.

The relevant minister, Peter Dutton, needed a stronger base for his prime ministerial ambitions, now seemingly as far away as ever; his departmental secretary, Michael Pezzullo, had the chance to consolidate his power in the public service by perching on top of a bigger bureaucratic pile. The two men were midwives at a birth that can best be described as empire building, a rationale whose name could not be spoken.

Idle talk about Home Affairs forming a “holy trinity” with Defence and Foreign Affairs suggested only that when no rationale was available the public had to make do with evasion and empty rhetoric.

Thus, a flawed organisation with incompatible functions was asked to deal with matters of intense political and real-life importance: population policy (the country still doesn’t have one); immigration and refugees, including measures to deter boat arrivals; the importation of goods and services; and aspects of national security, intelligence collection and policing — a big bagful even for a well-formed organisation.

To make things more fraught, by the time Home Affairs was born the offshore “processing” of boat arrivals was on a slippery slope. As Peter Hughes has recently explained, when the opportunity for maritime asylum seekers to have their futures determined in Malaysia was torpedoed by a Coalition–Greens alliance, the government and Home Affairs had a predestined disaster on its hands. Henceforth, people would be detained in Nauru and Manus Island, from where the reputable organisations running the detention centres had decamped for fear of reputational damage, leaving billions of dollars of operational spending to be skimmed by opportunists and dodgy dealers.

Former departmental secretary Dennis Richardson’s appointment to investigate offshore detention bribery allegations is great news, but perhaps he should be put on a permanent retainer. These illegalities may now be endemic to the system.

As tragic as all this may be, the grandest failure of Home Affairs and its leaders has been the diminution of immigration as a principal function of the federal government. Sidelined and neglected, its backlog of visa decisions ballooned — so much so that by June last year almost a million applications were on hand. (That figure has since been reduced to around 575,000.) At the same time, impediments to obtaining citizenship meant that people who legally qualified for Australian citizenship had to wait fifteen months just to get a decision on their applications. The settlement of new arrivals has been thoroughly unsettled.

A major review of Home Affairs headed by a former secretary of Prime Minister’s and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, found that “the migration program is no longer fit for purpose”; that there is evidence of “systemic exploitation” of a migration system that poses “a risk of a permanent temporary underclass” with “more than 1.8 million temporary migrants living in Australia”; and that temporary migrants “face tangled and lengthy pathways to permanent residence… that undermines our democratic resilience and social cohesion.”

A further review by former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon — leaked but not officially released — makes the astounding observation that “other than the limited capacity of the Migration Agents Registration Authority, there is currently no compliance or investigative capability within the Department’s Immigration Group.” Immigration had no cop on the beat, a fact wholly at odds with many years of Home Affairs rhetoric about the integrity of the system.

Who is responsible for the state of affairs so dismally described by Parkinson and Nixon?

While sundry ministers can take their fair share of the blame, Bachelard and McKenzie have pointed the bone at Home Affairs secretary Pezzullo. His former minister, Karen Andrews, gave them a lukewarm referee’s report on the secretary and then, when asked if Home Affairs could operate without him, simply said, “Well, no one’s indispensable.”

Pezzullo has made himself a convenient target. He has allowed an apparently abundant ego to make him into a prominent public figure. That’s unusual by the standards of senior federal officials, who are typically content with low profiles, especially as ministers often prefer not to be crowded out of the limelight by their staff.

Over the past six years he has made fifty-five public speeches, all proudly listed on his department’s website. They include addresses on Australia and Anzac days, orations usually reserved for vice-regal representatives and RSL presidents. It’s an astounding collection, although one longer in intellectual pretension than substance. To crib a quip from Dorothy Parker, there’s less to these speeches than meets the eye.

In an opening statement at a recent parliamentary committee hearing, Pezzullo claimed that the “integrity of the visa system has been significantly strengthened” and cited in support an increase in the rate of visa refusals from 1.8 per cent to 3.2 per cent. As Abul Rizvi points out, refusal rates say little about how well the system is working. Rizvi asks if Pezzullo would argue that the current very high approval rate for onshore student visa applications reflects a reduction in the system’s integrity. Or, to stretch it to its logical absurdity, would a 100 per cent refusal rate signify a visa system at its acme?

If Pezzullo was one of the principal architects of Home Affairs, and given that he has been its secretary for the entirety of its existence, Bachelard and McKenzie’s question about his position is understandable. But it would be a mistake to think that replacing him or forcing him to change his ways would patch things up. The fundamental fault in this organisation lies in its conception and structure. If that were to be maintained, not even a secretary with divine powers could make it work.

Labor and its Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil have taken some ameliorating steps. All immigration functions in Home Affairs have been consolidated under an associate secretary position. The Federal Police have been returned to the attorney-general’s portfolio. This is all well and good, but it’s insufficient. It’s a pity the Parkinson review didn’t go more deeply into the machinery-of-government and organisational shortcomings of Home Affairs.

Some have called for a further inquiry or, as has become fashionable, a royal commission. While such an inquiry could be useful in providing political cover and impetus for change, it would delay necessary correctives for another year or more and move the consequent decisions closer to the next election, when governments are slowed by the dead hand of political caution.

Enough is known now. The Parkinson and Nixon reviews are at hand and the conceptual inadequacies of the Home Affairs model are clear and have been demonstrated in practice. Thus, the government should:

• establish a freestanding Department of Immigration, allowing a clear-eyed, high-priority concentration on immigration policy and service delivery free of the distractions and distortions to which it is vulnerable in Home Affairs

• legislate for an independent statutory authority responsible for the functions of the existing Border Force on the basis that the decisions it must make, including the imposition of customs duties, should be better protected from ministerial involvement

• retain existing arrangements for Operation Sovereign Borders

• leave management of onshore detention facilities with Border Force but shift its immigration-compliance functions to the Department of Immigration

• place responsibility for offshore facilities and the care of any maritime asylum seekers with Border Force or some other authority, leaving asylum and visa decision-making to Immigration

• return ASIO to the attorney-general’s portfolio

• distribute remnant Home Affairs functions to the most appropriate existing departments or agencies.

This is easy to say, of course, but more difficult to do. Given the brittle political territory involved, courage and strength would be needed, and the risk of political and administrative flak would be high.

Rough as that might be, though, it’s unlikely to be as politically and administratively damaging as the hits governments will continue to take if the Home Affairs portfolio is retained. And while disruptive, these changes would liberate staff from a department that has depressed their morale and enable them to better support governments and serve the country. •