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Peter Dutton's New Super Department Is Facing Unprecedented Government Scrutiny

There are now six potential new reviews into the Department of Home Affairs.

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Peter Dutton.
Michael Masters / Getty Images

Peter Dutton.

The new super agency created by home affairs minister Peter Dutton is facing unprecedented government scrutiny, amid a series of audits and reviews into visa arrangements and anti-corruption measures.

The federal government merged a large number of Australian government agencies into one super agency headed by Dutton earlier this year.

In an unprecedented government initiative, Dutton is overseeing more than 13,000 staff across the immigration department, Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime and Intelligence Commission, Austrac and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

The agency is absorbing a range of functions from the attorney-general's department, the department of infrastructure and the prime minister's department, and will have a total budget of more than $2 billion.

The arrangement was particularly controversial because there was no recommendation to actually create the agency; its establishment rests on the contested assumption that centralising these government agencies will ensure greater efficiency across immigration, law enforcement and other government areas.

But the new agency is now facing unprecedented scrutiny as home affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo grapples with how to bring disparate government entities under the umbrella of a single agency.

Michael Pezzullo.
Stringer / Reuters

Michael Pezzullo.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) is currently undertaking three separate audits into the integration of the immigration department and customs, the efficiency of visa processing and personnel security risks.

It is currently considering an additional six audits into staff integrity measures, payment standards, cape class patron vessel support, intelligence operations, collection of visa revenue and the tourist refund scheme.

Previous ANAO reports have scrutinised the immigration department's detention contracting arrangements and found them to have serious flaws. One review into contracting on Nauru and Manus found it spent more than $1 billion without proper approvals, and another found it failed to oversee healthcare arrangements in onshore detention centres.

Shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann told BuzzFeed News: "Peter Dutton may have a new job title but it doesn’t detract from the string of scathing reports into the management of his department.

"This includes two ANAO reports into garrison support and welfare services on Manus and Nauru, two Commonwealth Ombudsman reports about the management and documentation of people held in detention and an ANAO Cybersecurity follow-up audit.

"Australia cannot afford for the systemic failures detailed in these reports to continue under tick-and-flick minister Dutton’s newly-minted Department of Home Affairs."

Staff within the super agency remain frustrated about the new arrangements. BuzzFeed News has spoken to employees who attended briefings throughout 2017 and 2018 about the creation of the new super agency. A number of officers who attended briefings found the department's explanations to be unsatisfactory.

Staff have been told that all of the agencies were "mogging" into the department of home affairs. The challenge with this model is that it can create inter-agency battles in a race for funding and resources.

Some key functions relating to the immigration detention system will also be centralised: Christmas Island immigration detention centre will officially close on June 30; Western Australia's Yongah Hill detention facility will be "ramped up" to manage an increase in numbers; the Christmas Island superintendent finished in February, and the department will not replace them, with management of the facility transferring to Canberra.

Staff were also informed there would be a "soft decoupling" of the ABF from the immigration department, which meant it would not be a separate statutory agency, but would be largely independent from the broader department. Nobody quite knows what that would look like, and there was substantial confusion when the proposal was floated.

Questions also linger over the enterprise agreements. Many of the agencies have separate agreements, and it's unclear whether employees in the broader department will attempt to negotiate unified agreements.

In addition to the ANAO audits, the department is also facing parliamentary scrutiny over the merger by the parliamentary intelligence committee.

A former legal officer for the immigration department recently spoke out to the ABC about the culture within the agency, with some staff describing it as a "shambles".

Contact Paul Farrell securely using the Signal messaging app on +61 457 262 172

Paul Farrell is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

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