AN­NIKA SMETHURST

Sunday Herald Sun - - Opinion -

THE pal­pa­ble hos­til­ity be­tween govern­ment min­is­ters over the cre­ation of Peter Dut­ton’s Home Af­fairs “su­per­min­istry” doesn’t seem to have eased much since it opened for busi­ness last De­cem­ber.

This week For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop and Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton took a few veiled, and not so veiled, shots at each other over a Home Af­fairs pro­posal to al­low Aus­tralia’s cy­ber de­fence agency to spy on us.

Bishop — tak­ing on the man­tle of Ge­orge Bran­dis who as­serted his “small-l lib­eral” po­si­tion on na­tional se­cu­rity — said she couldn’t see an in­tel­li­gence gap. Dut­ton be­lieves there is a “case to be made” about ex­pand­ing the pow­ers of Aus­tralian cy­ber spies to on­shore threats.

With an elec­tion on the cards within the next 12 months, La­bor MPs are also at log­ger­heads about what to do with Home Af­fairs.

In an un­usual de­par­ture from the bi­par­ti­san­ship, which usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues, La­bor was far from sup­port­ive of the merger of im­mi­gra­tion, border pro­tec­tion and do­mes­tic se­cu­rity agen­cies into a new port­fo­lio. One of the par­tic­u­larly toxic el­e­ments for La­bor MPs is the in­clu­sion of im­mi­gra­tion in what is essen­tially a se­cu­rity port­fo­lio.

The gen­eral con­sen­sus among Op­po­si­tion MPs is that they should avoid pub­licly at­tack­ing the new port­fo­lio while Dut­ton builds it up. They ar­gue that he should be given enough rope to make mis­takes so that La­bor can jus­tify any changes if Bill Shorten was to win the next elec­tion. But un­pick­ing it won’t be easy.

As La­bor pre­pares for the very real pos­si­bil­ity of form­ing govern­ment, the Op­po­si­tion is gear­ing up for an in­ter­nal clash over Home Af­fairs.

The prospect of an early elec­tion has buoyed the spir­its of the big­gest Home Af­fairs haters who know that it will be eas­ier to un­ravel an en­tire de­part­ment while it is still find­ing its feet.

“At the mo­ment, I don’t see that it is be­yond re­ver­sal,” one La­bor front­bencher said this week. “If we don’t have an elec­tion for another year that’s a lot of struc­tural re-es­tab­lish­ment, but a Septem­ber elec­tion would give us a chance.”

MPs with a dog in the fight — those who fancy them­selves with an im­mi­gra­tion, border pro­tec­tion and se­cu­rity port­fo­lio — are hes­i­tant to show their cards be­fore an elec­tion.

But win­ning an elec­tion with­out a Home Af­fairs strat­egy would ex­pose La­bor to a tar­geted cam­paign by the Coali­tion.

Even the staunch­est Home Af­fairs crit­ics knows how del­i­cately La­bor would need to tread if it were to try to make any changes to an in­her­ited su­per min­istry. La­bor’s dis­as­trous asy­lum-seeker poli­cies have fed doubts about its na­tional se­cu­rity cre­den­tials.

Any at­tempt to un­ravel this be­he­moth would have to be done with cau­tion. To avoid a po­lit­i­cal headache, La­bor would have to be seen to be act­ing on advice from the agen­cies in­volved or ex­perts out­side the party in or­der to wind back the Home Af­fairs port­fo­lio.

The most likely out­come is that La­bor keeps the Home Af­fairs port­fo­lio while smooth­ing some of the rougher edges.

The me­chan­ics of un­wind­ing a de­part­ment are eas­ier if you re­move the pol­i­tics.

Dut­ton — who is a fron­trun­ner to be Op­po­si­tion Leader in this sce­nario — will spend ev­ery minute of ev­ery day try­ing to paint La­bor as soft on ter­ror­ism and se­cu­rity. La­bor needs to avoid giv­ing him any new ma­te­rial if it is to suc­ceed.

The last thing La­bor wants is for its first 100 days in govern­ment to be dom­i­nated by an in­ter­nal squab­ble over Home Af­fairs. It would be po­lit­i­cal sui­cide.

As one La­bor MP said, “this is not a PFG (prob­lem for govern­ment)”, but it is fast be­com­ing a prob­lem for them. AN­NIKA SMETHURST IS NA­TIONAL POL­I­TICS ED­I­TOR an­nika.smethurst@news.com.au @an­nikas­methurst

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