Peter Khalil: If we are genuinely to hold fast to the fundamental and most basic principles of democracy and the rule of law, we cannot remain silent—we should not remain silent—when faced with one minister collating and consolidating so much power to himself. The member for Fisher, who’s leaving now, reads out the CV of Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs, as if that absolves the government of the necessity of proper scrutiny around the unchecked powers of the home affairs minister. On this side, Labor have been consistent in the argument that we’ve put forward that this is overreach and that the Minister for Home Affairs shouldn’t just be given a rubber stamp for this unchecked power.
I know the Home Affairs and Integrity Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 is an administrative bill to some extent. In its original form it amended four current acts with the intention to give administrative effect, where required, to legislative changes around the establishment of the new Home Affairs portfolio. It was introduced to the House on 7 December 2017, last year, and then the government referred the bill to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. There were recommendations from that committee’s first report, and then the government went ahead and produced a large set of further amendments to the bill, amending 33 further acts. There was constructive negotiation between our shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, and the government’s Attorney-General, and these amendments were submitted to the intelligence committee for further inquiry.
The creation of the Home Affairs portfolio, including the department, has been largely realised through the machinery of government, and on this side we’ve taken the position that specific organisational changes to government departments are typically a matter left to the discretion of the government of the day. That’s part of their machinery of government. So that’s the position that we’ve taken. However, this should not exempt elements of the government’s proposal from genuine scrutiny. The specific changes, for example, to the remit of the Attorney-General’s portfolio deserve rigorous scrutiny.
Many of us here have expressed significant concern with respect to the concentration of power within the Home Affairs portfolio. I’ve been one of those. I’ve previously voiced concerns in this place that the establishment of the Home Affairs portfolio has been an opportunity to, if you like, collate and consolidate unchecked executive power to the minister.
It’s Labor’s intention to ensure that the government is held accountable to its initial commitment, made by the Prime Minister during the bill’s second reading speech, about the enhanced role of the Attorney-General. I think it’s important to note the speech made by the Prime Minister where he identified how the Attorney-General would have an expanded portfolio, taking on ‘a suite of new oversight responsibilities with our intelligence community’, but would still retain his responsibility for the administration of the criminal justice system. So Labor understands that the expansion of the Attorney-General’s role is a necessary part of the creation of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s role as first law officer. This is a view, of course, supported by the Law Council of Australia, which supported the changes made in this bill during the council’s submission to the parliamentary joint intelligence committee.
While we support the substance of the bill in that respect, I think it’s important to use this debate to shine a light on the abysmal way in which this government has actually gone about establishing this new department. There were a lot of articles written in the media. There was one in particular by Karen Middleton for The Saturday Paper which pointed out how changes relating to ASIO were being kept from public view, discussing how the legislation seems to no longer be subject to public scrutiny before it is passed. We are very concerned on this side of the House about the lack of transparency. We hope—and it may well be a forlorn hope—that the government reviews its processes to ensure that any changes undergo the appropriate level of public and parliamentary scrutiny.
I concur with the comments made by the shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, earlier when he said that the new Attorney-General clearly does not understand the bipartisan role that the intelligence committee fulfils. Even the former Attorney-General for this government, George Brandis, claimed in a speech in February that the creation of the Department of Home Affairs was ‘unsettling’, to use his word. I’ve said on numerous occasions that we should all be worried by this government’s securitisation, particularly of that part of the immigration portfolio under Home Affairs. Troublingly, as I pointed out, there is a large amount of undefined or unchecked executive power under the new department.
I just point out that the fact that the member for Fisher read out Mr Dutton’s CV is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter who the minister is. He misses the point. The point is not who the minister is. It could be Peter Dutton. It could be Mother Teresa. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the structural powers that are given to that minister and making sure that the powers can be checked by the parliament and that they are not just given to a minister to concentrate his ability to dominate an entire portfolio, in the sense that he has discretionary powers that are more than even those of the Prime Minister. That’s too much power for one person.
In some respects this minister has built an empire through blatant disregard for the democratic process. According to the 2017 report of Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project, the Minister for Home Affairs, as I said, holds more power than any other minister, including the Prime Minister. We can’t abide this, and we urge the government to put a stop to Minister Dutton’s power-grabbing efforts. While the minister’s power expands, his competence has been persistently called into question. An independent review of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, looking at the circumstances of the detention of two Australian citizens, was released under freedom-of-information laws earlier this year. The review revealed systematic problems in Minister Dutton’s management of onshore detention centres, resulting in two Australian citizens being wrongly detained in immigration detention. Between 2016 and 2017 the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection wrongfully held two Australian citizens for 97 and 13 days respectively. That’s right: this government wrongfully held Australian citizens in immigration detention. For all Minister Dutton’s arrogant swagger and bluster about management of these centres, about border security, about being tough, the facts are that the incompetence is utterly staggering.
There’s been a lot of debate in this House around migration matters in recent months. There is more of it in the debate on this bill. During the debates on several pieces of migration legislation that we have had before us, I have noted my concerns around immigration policy under this government and the tendency of this government to securitise the immigration portfolio itself and the policy around it, particularly under the new Department of Home Affairs. Of course Labor and I support the need to keep Australia safe and secure. Indeed, I’ve spent much of my professional life doing exactly that. We also understand that security is only one element, albeit it an important element, of migration policy. But it’s a much more complex portfolio than that. New migrants contribute economically, socially and culturally. The immigration portfolio has to have elements that are economic, social and cultural to facilitate the successful settlement of migrants in this country. There are many immigrants, including refugees and migrant workers who go on to become permanent residents and citizens, who become entrepreneurs themselves and make great contributions to Australia’s economy. I feel and I see that there is a real lack of focus on those elements of the immigration portfolio, and that is a concern. We’ve seen several research papers that touch on this and the importance of new migrants in, for example, productivity in Australian agriculture and a whole range of sectors. The government focuses attention on security, at the expense of these other important elements. While security and keeping Australia safe are important, that’s only one part of a much more complex portfolio. In that respect, I would say that the government have failed to successfully oversee the immigration portfolio and policy for this country.
While we don’t reject any of these amendments, on the basis that the organisation of government departments is a matter for the discretion of the government of the day, we do highlight and hold the government accountable for their incompetence when they get it wrong—that’s part of our role as an opposition—and the failures and the lack of transparency that have come to define this portfolio. In what is typical of the lack of substance that characterises this government, even views expressed by the intelligence community have noted that the establishment of this department seems to be much more about political grandstanding than actual substantive change. Even the Prime Minister has acknowledged that the new ministry was not recommended in the intelligence review that was conducted by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant.
It seems in some respects that this Department of Home Affairs is a product of the political bickering and infighting that have characterised this government for so long. Even TheDaily Telegraph, which tends to have stories that are very favourable to the government, mucks in, with Sharri Markson writing a tale about the Department of Home Affairs emerging—being born—out of the conflicting relationships in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, claiming that the new ministry is a product of the Prime Minister’s ‘need to be saved from the conservative faction’, and I put that in quotation marks. It appears that this department is more a product of the Prime Minister’s inability to lead. The Prime Minister can’t control members of his own party, and he consistently caves in to a particular faction in his party to appease them, to placate them, and in so doing just hands over all of these unchecked powers, which is not good for Australia.
We on this side urge the government to take a stronger stance and to assure us and the public that the new Department of Home Affairs is based on expert advice and not the political machinations of their factions. Though it only exists to review and amend legislation, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security provides a very strong form of expert advice, and I would encourage the minister, who’s here now, and the government to follow all of the recommendations of the joint parliamentary intelligence committee when constructing and continuing their work to construct the new department.