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 firstname.lastname@example.org @annikasmethurst