Every now and then you get the impression that Australia is desperate to be under grave threat.
That’s certainly how it appeared when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week announced the creation of a “super ministry” of Home Affairs, choosing as his backdrop a mix of military equipment and soldiers wearing gas masks. There was a time when his predecessor, Tony Abbott, was lampooned for giving national-security-themed news conferences in front of an ever-growing number of Australian flags. Now Mr. Abbott seems a master of subtlety.
It was a shocking yet predictable moment. Shocking because it seemed like a sudden escalation for Mr. Turnbull, who was once a critic of Mr. Abbott’s tendency to overhype the threat of terrorism. Predictable because in so much of the world the appearance of being tough on terrorism has become the most common political currency.
Mr. Turnbull’s plan is to merge the intelligence agency, the federal police and the immigration department into a single bureau headed by the current immigration minister, Peter Dutton. This takes a sizable chunk of responsibility from the attorney general, although that position (encouragingly) retains an oversight role over the security services in the new agency.
There has been little from the prime minister beyond platitudes — “as terrorists evolve their methods, we have to evolve our responses” — to explain the move, aside from a befuddling reference to the British approach to antiterrorism. Mr. Turnbull said that Australia was “adopting a model which is closer to the British Home Office than the large-scale American Homeland Security Department,” but he failed to explain why the British model is superior to the Australian one.
In most terrorism cases in Britain, some of the perpetrators had been known to intelligence authorities, who lack the resources to closely monitor every suspect. And with the police unable to follow every lead, British officials have in some cases failed to act to prevent attacks. If the chief benefit of centralization is meant to be better coordination among the different arms of government, Britain has hardly had the kind of raging success that should inspire Australia.
But putting aside its shortcomings in preventing attacks, the British approach may not work here for another reason: Australia faces a different kind of terrorist threat. And Australian authorities already have a strong record of arresting terrorists and of disrupting locally planned plots.
No Australian terrorist attacks have been mass casualty incidents, not one has been the work of a sophisticated network, and all have used crude weaponry such as knives and guns rather than advanced bombs. There is no Australian equivalent of the 2005 coordinated suicide attacks on the London Tube and buses or the more recent Manchester attack.
Australian authorities may suspect that we could some day face the kind of sophisticated plots that Britain has dealt with, and assume that the British approach is the best way to handle those threats. But no one in Mr. Turnbull’s government has made that case.
This is probably why, when asked, Mr. Turnbull could not name anyone who had asked for this reorganization. Not in the intelligence community, not from the police, not even among outside experts. A government-commissioned intelligence review also released last week made no such recommendation. Tony Abbott has unhelpfully added that he was advised against it as prime minister.
This is becoming a pattern. Hardly a month ago, the government said it would change citizenship laws to make permanent residents wait longer for citizenship, upgrade the “values” component of the citizenship test, and require the same level of English-language proficiency as university entrants. The government did this, too, by invoking national security. And again, when asked if this move was on the advice of any intelligence or law enforcement agencies, Mr. Turnbull declined to say.
What is Mr. Turnbull thinking? The answer should be obvious: politics.
Between his low standing in the polls and the insurgency he faces from the right wing of his own party (led by the man he deposed as leader, Tony Abbott, who now takes to the airwaves at least once a week to criticize his successor’s leadership), Mr. Turnbull’s position is extremely weak. He needs a prominent right-wing ally, and Peter Dutton fills this role.
There’s a more telling insight offered by the man who has lost most in this, and who was among the most vocal opponents of it within the Turnbull cabinet: Attorney General George Brandis. Pressured to support this reorganization publicly, Mr. Brandis declared the change ensures that a minister will “give 100 percent of his time and his attention to national security, both domestic, national security and border security.”
But the idea of a home affairs minister focused on national security makes sense only if we assume immigration is entirely a security problem. This points to the true ideological import of this newly formed department.
Australia began this century with a Department for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Back then, the department’s slogan was “Enriching Australia through Migration.” Just over a decade ago it dropped the multiculturalism portfolio entirely, creating instead a Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Now it’s to be rolled into a national security department. Thus, we can chart Australia’s public conception of migration from being a celebrated aspect of its multicultural character to a civic idea whose highest ultimate expression is citizenship to a threat to be managed.
That certainly chimes with Australia’s established rhetoric on asylum seekers, which has dominated public expression of our immigration program. And it might suit the increasingly nationalist belligerence of our age. But it does not suit Mr. Turnbull, a man who until recently was fond of celebrating Australia as “the most successful multicultural society in the world”; a man who only a few weeks ago was declaring that his party was established to be liberal, in contradistinction to conservative.
When the story of the Turnbull government is written, he will have been the prime minister who finally debased immigration in the Australian political imagination. The image last week of the prime minister draped awkwardly in military power will surely accompany that chapter. And those gas masks won’t look much like liberalism. Most likely they won’t look much like success either.
Waleed Aly is a columnist and broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne.