The push to try to get Immigration Minister Peter Dutton onto cabinet’s national security committee (NSC) can be seen, apart from anything else, as something of a power play by the Liberal right.
In Tony Abbott’s government, the immigration minister – first Scott Morrison and then Dutton – had a place on the NSC. But Malcolm Turnbull said after his reshuffle that it was enough for the minister to attend the committee when there was a relevant issue.
“Ministers have got to get on with their day jobs. You clearly want to ensure that no minister is in a committee taking up his or her very valuable time on matters that are not directly relevant to them,” he said, casting the Dutton exclusion in business-efficiency terms.
“None of this has been written in stone, but I’d rather start off with the NSC being leaner to begin with and if we have to change the permanent membership we can do so.”
This week, two Abbott loyalists – Tasmanian Liberal Andrew Nikolic and former defence minister Kevin Andrews – urged that Dutton be a permanent member. Abbott has said that “the minister for border protection is … a significant part of our national security machinery”.
Unlike Andrews and Nikolic, who lost positions under Turnbull (Nikolic was formerly a whip), Dutton, also a strong Abbott man, kept his portfolio, albeit not his NSC spot. Morrison spoke up for him, and his claim to be retained in immigration was strengthened by the need to send a signal that the new prime minister would not be soft on people smuggling.
The NSC – like the expenditure review committee (ERC) – is an uber cabinet committee, handling some of the most critical and sensitive issues coming before the government. Both committees give their members a wide view of what is going on. The ERC deals with a more comprehensive basket, but the NSC is highly relevant in present times. Its decisions do not have to go to cabinet. Some do on big matters – for example the controversial citizenship changes – but others, such as in the area of defence procurements, do not.
The NSC’s official brief is described as focusing on “major international security issues of strategic importance to Australia, border protection policy, national responses to developing situations (either domestic or international) and classified matters relating to aspects of operation and activities of the Australian intelligence community”.
Its current members are Turnbull, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Attorney-General George Brandis, Treasurer Morrison, Defence Minister Marise Payne and Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos.
Over the years, the pattern of immigration ministers’ membership of the NSC has reflected the issues of the times, notably boat arrivals, as well as the preference of the prime minister.
As immigration minister, Philip Ruddock was not on the committee in the first Howard government, but was installed after the 2001 election when the numbers of people coming by boat were at a peak. But in 2003, when Ruddock became attorney-general (which kept him on the committee) and arrivals had virtually stopped, new immigration minister Amanda Vanstone was not made an NSC member.
Kevin Rudd did not initially have immigration on the NSC but he added it later, as boat arrivals started to surge. Immigration stayed there during the Gillard prime ministership. But rather oddly, given the restored Rudd was unveiling his harsh offshore initiative in the run-up to the 2013 election, he did not have minister Tony Burke on the committee.
So the main question is whether the current border security situation requires or justifies an NSC place for the immigration minister.
The most important point is the boats have stopped – the borders have been secured. On the other hand, Manus Island and Nauru are still hotspots, and the Syrian intake has introduced a new dimension, with some security implications.
But, on balance, present circumstances don’t demand Dutton having a permanent place on the committee.
Putting immigration on the NSC also sends out a message. It reinforces the impression that the portfolio is mostly about border control, asylum seekers and refugees, as it has become in recent years.
Years ago immigration ministers used to talk about economic issues affecting the nation. These days the national development aspects of the portfolio get little public attention, which is unfortunate.
Dutton is hoping that the pressure from his political allies might lever open the NSC door. Asked about the matter this week, he said:
Obviously border security is paramount to keeping our nation safe, and the work of the Australian Border Force officers feeds into the intelligence gatherings of the central agencies every day. There’s a lot of work that our Border Force officers do with the AFP and the intel agencies.
Dutton noted that Turnbull had said when he made the decision about the NSC “that it would be reviewed, that it wasn’t set in stone. So no doubt he’ll do that when he sees it appropriate”.
It seems unlikely, however, that without some major alteration in circumstances Turnbull will change his mind anytime soon. Indeed, the calls from the right are likely just to reinforce his view.