Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Home Affairs Department has been caught out repeatedly suggesting that it speaks on behalf of supposedly independent law enforcement agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

At a hearing for the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security’s review of the telecommunication sector security reforms on Thursday afternoon, Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus took the opportunity to castigate representatives from the powerful mega-department about their submission.

He took issue with the start of its submission which refers to itself as the “Home Affairs portfolio”, a term that includes agencies that come under the department, rather than the “Department of Home Affairs”.

“I want to be really clear with you: the department does not speak on behalf of the Australian Federal Police, the department does not speak on behalf of AUSTRAC, the department does not speak on behalf of the ACIC, and even though you consulted ASIO, it does not speak on behalf of ASIO,” he said.

Dreyfus said it was the second time he had seen this occur. Crikey found two other submissions to current parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security inquiries that use the same language: the review of the proposed identify and disrupt legislation, and the review of Australia’s anti-encryption laws.

While the AFP and ASIO come under the Department of Home Affairs, they are independent of the government. Agencies frequently make their own submissions to inquiries, and the Department of Home Affairs will often consult them as part of preparing its submissions — which is different from when the department attributes their submissions to it as well.

Dreyfus told the Home Affairs representatives that the department should not be seen speaking on behalf of these agencies.

“You’re not doing AFP, or ASIO, or ACIC, or any of these other statutory agencies or public confidence any favours by suggesting that you speak on their behalf, and I’m asking you to stop doing that,” he said.

“Yes, Mr Dreyfus, you’ve made yourself clear,” Home Affairs deputy secretary, national resilience and cyber security, Marc Ablong, responded.

Government not holding up its end of the deal

Later, Home Affairs representatives batted away criticism given at an earlier hearing by the peak body representing Australia’s telecommunication industry that it had been saddled with duplicate reforms that added to a regulatory burden that hadn’t delivered promised benefits.

Members of the committee put the concerns to the representatives that the Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 would leave telcos with two overlapping obligations for national security measures. They also told the Home Affairs representatives that they had heard the telecommunications sector hadn’t been receiving the advice back from the department about specific threats to its infrastructure that it had been promised.

In response, Home Affairs’ first assistant secretary, critical infrastructure security, Samuel Grunhard, defended the information provided to telcos by denying there was a gap between what information-sharing the government had promised telcos and what it had delivered.

Representatives also rejected the idea that the existing reforms taken with the proposed critical infrastructure bill would create two separate but duplicate regulations for security.

“I wouldn’t consider them to be rival regimes but a continuum as one,” Ablong said.