|THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU, PETER DUTTON, AND THESE SECRETS AREN'T YOURS TO KEEP
US president Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here”. Truman understood that elected representatives in executive office are responsible for the decisions governments make and accountable to the people they represent.
Call me old-fashioned, but that’s how democracy should work – yet Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton continually thumbs his nose at such requirements.
In just the past week, Dutton has failed to meet legislated reporting deadlines regarding significant national security legislation, ignored requests from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner and national media outlets, and hidden a taxpayer-funded review of the Department of Home Affairs from the public.
This comes on top of his attempts to pretend that the $423 million debacle that is the Paladin contract for services on Manus has nothing to do with him – he’s just the Minister, for heaven’s sake. He’s also trying to hide reports done by KPMG and Ernst & Young that might just show how shambolic, farcical and wasteful the Paladin mess is.
But let’s stick to Dutton’s messes in the past week. Right now there is a major parliamentary review under way of Australia’s mandatory metadata retention laws, which compel telecommunications companies to retain data for two years so that security and law-enforcement agencies can access everyone’s phone and internet records.
Under this scheme, the Department of Home Affairs is legally required to prepare an annual report so the public knows how many times law-enforcement agencies are using the laws.
It was revealed last week that the department has failed to submit its report for the 2017-18 financial year and it is now more than a year overdue.
By failing to ensure his department meets this deadline, the Minister is failing the citizens who trust government to use these powers, and this information, appropriately.
Dutton may be in charge of our law-enforcement and security agencies, but he is not above the law. This basic failure by the department and Dutton to meet this legal obligation prompted the Australian Human Rights Commissioner to call for a windback of the metadata laws.
From Dutton – no response, and no indication when or if Home Affairs will provide the Parliament with this legally required report.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman similarly argued last week to amend another set of national security laws – Australia’s encryption legislation. The Ombudsman is concerned that Dutton is able to redact the independent Ombudsman reports into the encryption laws, despite the fact these reports are meant to provide accountability and transparency. Dutton is, the Ombudsman points out, the only Minister with the capacity to edit Ombudsman reports.
From Dutton – no response.
It has also been revealed that the public will not be allowed to find out whether the Department of Home Affairs is operating efficiently and effectively. Dutton is keeping a taxpayer-funded review secret from taxpayers.
When he was treasurer, Scott Morrison set aside $7 million of taxpayers’ money in his 2018-19 budget to undertake a strategic review of the Department of Home Affairs, despite the fact that at the time the department was less than five months old. Last week we learnt that the department has completed the review and will not be releasing the results.
A review of such strategic importance should be released immediately to reassure the community that the department overseeing Australia’s national security, border protection and immigration is operating as required.
The Australian taxpayer deserves to know who undertook the review, how long ago it was completed, what the review found and, ultimately, how $7 million of their money was spent.
The ever-growing list of concerns about Dutton’s record of mismanagement and maladministration make the release of the departmental review especially important.
If he does not follow through on his ministerial responsibilities and release it, or the report into the metadata laws that he is legally obliged to provide to the public, he could be forced to do so by the Senate.
Dutton cannot pretend parliamentary reporting, metadata retention, encryption laws and freedom of the press are not his responsibility. They are his job. The buck stops with him.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, 15 July 2019.
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