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Threatening Mergers: The Turnbull Home Affairs Plan

Threatening Mergers: The Turnbull Home Affairs Plan

“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”.

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.”

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. 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. 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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