Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin became a frequent sidekick to then-prime minister Tony Abbott, appearing at a number of press conferences and photo opportunities with Abbott during his first two years of government. Colvin was also brought in to justify why the government was pursuing mandatory data retention where Attorney-General George Brandis had failed to adequately explain. But while the government has been talking tough on terrorism, and happy to use the AFP to show off its national security credentials, the agency has been subject to budget cuts over the past few years — and warned that it will not be able to sustain staffing levels or keep up with technology upgrades if these “efficiency dividends” continue.

The government announced a major funding push into counter-terrorism and national security in the May budget, with the then-Abbott government pledging more than $450 million to “strengthen Australia’s intelligence capabilities, including updating information technology systems and to counter extremist messaging”. In reality, however, one of the agencies most responsible for investigating and dealing with terrorism and national security in Australia is crying poor.

The annual budget for the AFP has been declining steadily, from $1.02 billion in 2014-15 to $981 million in this financial year. Out to 2018-19, the agency’s budget for law enforcement and national security will be cut back to $903 million. That’s in addition to a $103 million cut over the forward estimates for international policing from $267 million down to $164 million.

In addition to funding cuts due to programs ending, there is an overall cut in funding by 2.5% in 2015-2016, and again in 2016-2017, and a 1% cut in 2017-2018. The Attorney-General’s Department has said part of that will be offset by additional counter-terrorism funding of $7.6 million in this financial year. The cumulative impact of the cuts over the forward estimates is $190 million.

In a response to a question on notice released earlier this month, the Australian Federal Police warned it could not bear future “efficiency dividends” and further cuts would hamper the agency’s ability to do its job:

“There is limited capacity to reduce supplier expenses and enabling support further and thus the continued indefinite imposition of the efficiency dividend will start to impact on operational resources. If it continues indefinitely it will reduce the AFP’s capacity to respond flexibly to Government priorities, and erode the AFP’s core operational resources.”

The AFP also said staff cuts would be on the cards if its budget were further slashed, estimating 115 people could go from the organisation over the next four years. These cuts could be temporarily countered where the AFP gets funding for specific operations or government announcements, but long-term resourcing, including technology upgrades, could potentially suffer due to the long-term cuts. The agency noted:

“The AFP has managed to incorporate funding for all essential upgrades to priority systems and equipment, however some upgrades have been deferred to later years as a result of the efficiency dividend. Continued delays in upgrades can result in limitations to the existing system and equipment capabilities.”

The security agency is currently in the process of developing a Future Directions Strategic Context paper, which will explain the operational needs for the AFP in the future, and the AFP has said it will seek funding for those projects through the budget process. Much of the government’s justification for pursuing mandatory telecommunications data retention was to keep up with the change in technology and to give the AFP and other law enforcement agencies the tools they need to investigate and combat modern crime. The AFP said that it also needed the equipment upgrades to ensure it would not “lag behind the criminal and national security threats we fight”.

“The AFP is committed to ensure efficient and effective investment in technology to maximise the utility of available resources. The imposition of the efficiency dividend increases the challenge of the AFP to keep up with advanced criminal enterprises due to the deferral of upgrades to systems.”

The AFP says the rapid development of technology, and criminals using that technology, means the police need to invest in research and development:

“The AFP continues to face challenges in ensuring as an organisation we keep pace with technologically advances used by organised criminals and those threatening Australia’s national security and who seek to exploit limitations. As organised criminals and those posing threats continue to evolve and adapt, the AFP will be required to continue to upgrade systems and capabilities and adapt to new emerging challenges in the environment.”

The AFP is the only security agency to face a budget cut over the next four years. ASIO and ASIS both received boosts in funding for counter-terrorism in the budget.