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Threatening Mergers: The Turnbull Home Affairs Plan

By Dr Binoy Kampmark

“Among the many objects which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be first” (John Jay, The Federalist Papers, No. 3).

In true Orwellian fashion, the best way to realise a sinister idea is to gloss it with disarming innocuousness. Britain has the Home Office, a catch-all entity that oversees a series of functions that give the impression it is no more threatening than a domestic servant of the people. In reality, it has the sorts of powers that are the envy of liberal democratic states. With the Brexit push, these powers will only increase.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States embarked on a process that irretrievably frayed liberties through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, involving the “the integration of all or part of 22 different federal department and agencies into a unified, integrated Department”.[1]

Unsurprisingly, the primary mission of the department, stipulated in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 among a list of objects, was to “prevent terrorist attacks within the United States” and “reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism”.

In a document proposing the creation of such a unified department, President George W. Bush literally noted that “no one single government agency has homeland security as its primary mission.” He went on to highlight the fact that “responsibilities for homeland security are dispersed among more than 100 different government organisations.”[2]

Such moves had the all too worrying elements of Gleischaltung about it, a fitting word born in the mind of Nazi officials keen to coordinate the standardisation and centralisation of state functions in the name of ideology and combating threats. While the DHS has not been quite so thorough, it has not been for want of trying.

Much of this came up in the somnambulism that followed those terrorist attacks. With the shock still paralytic, legislation such as the USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through with minimal perusal. The Republic has been reeling from this ever since, a victim of unwarranted surveillance, misguided wars, and a sleepwalking Congress less mindful of the depredations of the security state.

Australia tends to arrive mercifully late to these games, but when it does, the newborn enthusiasm is boundless. Ask the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who has announced a new ministry of Home Affairs that will include the Australian Federal Police, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and the Australian Border Force.[3] Civil liberty advocates should batten down the hatches.

A vast body of opinion has churned through the mill on the subject of reconciling liberties with combating terrorism and other threats to security. A common thread here, and one advocated by Thomas F. Powers, was that security was necessary for the enjoyment of liberty.[4] But such views rarely examine the consequences of privileging the security rationale advanced by the state.

A degree of anarchy should never be ignored as an indispensable ingredient of freedom. Chaos is not always a friend of insecurity, notably of the citizen. Government departments, aligned against each other in distracting turf wars, have one unintended consequence: preventing treading on the liberty of the subject.

The vote selling tactic deemed rather popular suggests the opposite: the dictates of security require unimpeded super departments with vigilant overlords briefed in snuffing out the next threat. Terrify the voter, and a fearful heart and addled mind will follow. But the notion of having such a leviathan, one that focuses an exclusive, all-encompassing eye is actually the sort of thing an informed citizenry should dread.

The point, rather, is who we want to be on edge, to be watchful. The public citizen should always be mindful of overly enthusiastic zealots, manning their desks and drafting the next statute that will enable easier surveillance and the casual acquisition of data on a mere suspicion of threat. The business of seeking safety, or its illusion, corrupts rather than enlightens.

The insistence on closing loopholes and trimming regulations in favour of a rapid response to a terror threat, or any threat so designated by the government, is something that should send a lingering shudder through the citizen.

Keep bureaucracies divided in their functions. Separate and distinguish them. ASIO delves into intelligence gathering, not policing. Nor should the AFP overly tax itself with espionage missions. The genius of American republican theory, based on the notion of a separation of powers, is something to draw upon in this sense. Once those balances fall, so does the state’s capacity to perform its tasks.

The Australian presumption, long linked to notions of sturdy government regulation and paternal oversight (the penal gene behind governance remains strong), lends danger to the notion that bureaucratic mergers can be a good thing. In a country lacking a solid, immutable bill of rights, the proposition is less tenable. Safety does not merely become a mania to exploit, but a mania to fulfil.

Given the paucity of republican theory in the country, it is fitting to finish with a warning from Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”






Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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  1. Keitha Granville

    Be afraid, be very afraid

  2. Freethinker

    Very good article, thank you for sharing
    I would said be on guard Keitha Granville and be active against any policy/laws that can limit our freedom.

  3. Freethinker

    Tony Abbott says home affairs ministry was not needed when he was leader
    “Tony Abbott has raised doubts about the need for Malcolm Turnbull’s new home affairs super-department, saying Australia did not need such a “massive bureaucratic change” when he was prime minister.
    He has also rejected the call by Liberal party president Nick Greiner for a rapprochement between himself and Turnbull, saying if he needs to talk to Turnbull he will.”

  4. Matters Not

    While one should theorise about structural arrangements, perhaps a more important, practical consideration might be –who is in charge and why. That the ex Queensland copper Peter Dutton is driving the political bus ought to be of great concern.

    In times gone by, Dutton was (rightly) ridiculed in Cabinet (lawyers here, there and everywhere) because he argued that certain matters should not remain in the hands of judges because they might let them off.

    Now Dutton has resolved the separation of powers tension. He is now the legislator, the executor, and the judge. All problems solved apparently.

  5. Kaye Lee

    “To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

    “How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings.

    “But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

    “And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose

  6. David Bruce

    Excellent reflection Kaye Lee. In the study of political ponerology, it becomes obvious that the group dynamics change as more and more become part of the “team”. The new normal becomes psychopathic and acceptable to the political “masters”. The boiling frog comes to mind for the people of Australia!

  7. Luke

    After the death of 254 Australians killed by animals over a10 year period the Australian government has set up a new department called, The Protection of Australians from Killer Animals, ( PAKA ). It will include combining the Environment, Fisheries, Primary Industries, and Health Departments, It will be run by the RSPCA, who in turn will answer to the Minister for everything Peter Dutton. The buck stops at Peters desk, as he is the chosen one to protect all Australians from these nasty nasty creatures.

  8. Susan

    Had to look up ‘ponerology’ – the study of evil. No doubt studying evil is a great thing to do if one is practising for the dark arts, but for the rest of us, what’s the point? Rather than study ‘evil’, would it not be more sensible to study ‘good’? That would be agathology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, agathism is “the doctrine that all things tend towards ultimate good, as distinguished from optimism, which holds that all things are now for the best”. An agathist accepts that evil and misfortune will ultimately happen, but that the eventual outcome leads towards the good. Am filing ‘agathism’ away as my religion for the next ABS census (replacing Jedi), thanks for the lead David.

  9. Christine Farmer

    Kaye Lee, you are absolutely right. It’s the incremental nature of what’s happening in this country which is so worrying and so frightening. We think what happened in Germany in the thirties can’t happen here. Why not? Little things put in place “for our own protection” , we’re told. Then more little things. It seems to me that putting Dutton in charge of this mega-department could be largely an attempt by Turnbull to save his own job: keep Dutton important and busy and he won’t challenge for the position of Prime Minister. Maybe. But maybe they are more birds to be killed with that one stone.

  10. Michael Taylor

    Now Dutton has resolved the separation of powers tension.

    MN, JB-P will be delighted at that news. I’m sure he took his concerns to the grave.

  11. mark

    Seems, conformity is back with a vengeance.mark

  12. Mick Yemm

    Obviously a uniform will be required for those in the new mega department, I wonder if they’ll choose brown for the colour of the shirts!

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