Peter Dutton home affairs national security
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton

Peter Dutton has got a lot to explain about this. He is supposed to be the minister responsible for the domestic security of Australia, he is supposed to be the minister responsible for ensuring our politics is not influenced by foreign actors … This is the national security of Australia. Remember the furore that arose against Sam Dastyari? All the same issues have arisen again and this has to be addressed at the highest level of security, priority, urgency by the prime minister.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull’s call for an explanation of Peter Dutton’s dealings with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo and the privileged access to Dutton he appeared to enjoy — dismissed yesterday by a smirking Scott Morrison as “nothing to see here” — might serve to focus on an issue that has received far less attention than it should: whether Peter Dutton’s stint as immigration and Home Affairs minister has damaged Australia’s national security.

First, there’s Dutton’s poor record on border security, supposedly his strength. While Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott can rightly claim to have halted the disastrous influx of maritime asylum seekers into Australia, Dutton has presided over an alarming increase in illegitimate asylum seeker claimants arriving at Australia’s airports.

His own department’s statistics make for grim reading. In 2014-15, the year Dutton became immigration minister, onshore applications for protection visas numbered less than 8600. In 2018, they had tripled to 28,000. Meanwhile, the number of legitimate onshore applicants who end up obtaining a visa has fallen — from 32% to 18%, a level that is a fraction of the level of successful applications for refugee status of maritime arrivals.

John Coyne of the conservative, government-funded security think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute declared air arrivals “Australia’s most pressing border security challenge”, warning that “the integrity of Australia’s border security is now being challenged by the increasing number of rejected onshore applications originating from air arrivals”. All this has come despite Home Affairs purportedly undertaking greater efforts at visa control.

Indeed, the failure of Home Affairs to effectively control our visa system was the subject of one of the most alarming Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) reports of recent years. A year into Dutton’s tenure as then-immigration minister, the ANAO found:

There are weaknesses in almost all aspects of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s arrangements for managing visa holders’ compliance with their visa conditions, including in key corporate functions that support the administration of Australia’s migration and visa programs. These weaknesses undermine the department’s capacity to effectively manage the risk of visa holders not complying with their visa conditions — from simple overstaying through illegal working to committing serious crimes.

Worse, the auditors found, “the department does not currently have an effective risk and intelligence function supporting visa compliance”. Those failures aren’t merely historic, they continue: Dutton’s department has a persistent problem with the presence of over 60,000 illegal non-citizens in Australia who arrived here on visas but have since remained.

Home Affairs on Dutton’s watch has also persistently failed — or refused — to adhere to the government’s own cybersecurity requirements. This is a long-running issue that Dutton inherited but has failed to address: in 2014, the immigration department, after an ANAO audit critical of its cybersecurity, assured a parliamentary committee it would fix the problems. But in March 2017, a follow-up audit revealed the department (along with the Australian Tax Office) was still in breach of the government’s cybersecurity mitigation strategies at a time when the government was warning of the increasing online threat from other states, organised crime and terrorists.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, declaring cyber-resilience a “strategic priority”, subsequently reported it was “most concerned that the audit found that the ATO and DIBP are still not compliant with the mandatory ‘Top Four’ mitigation strategies”. Worse, immigration “could not provide a date for when full compliance with all of the ‘Top Four’ mitigation strategies would be achieved, despite previously advising the Committee that full compliance would be achieved by December 2016”.

These significant failings, on effectively controlling who enters and remains in Australia, and the department’s capacity to resist cyber attacks at a time of heightened risk, are obviously at odds with Dutton’s attempts to portray himself as an immigration hard-man and vigilant guardian of our domestic security. But Dutton indeed has serious questions to answer about national security — and not just on meals with Huang Xiangmo.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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