A restructure of the Department of Home Affairs is being progressed to reorientate the national security agency around issues of cybersecurity and foreign interference amid a worsening geopolitical environment.
The reorganisation is being pushed by Home Affairs and Cybersecurity minister Clare O’Neil to shift the focus of the agency away from predominantly domestic security issues, in part to ensure the government has a “spine” for managing cyber threats.
In a new episode of the National Security College’s podcast released on Thursday, Ms O’Neil said that the Home Affairs department that was created by then-minister Peter Dutton in 2017 needed to change its work “quite a bit” to address those concerns.
“The discussion about Home Affairs at the time was very much around boats and managing the borders, around crime types that [Mr Dutton was] particularly interested in, around drug trafficking. Very important things for the country and very important national security risks we face,” she said.
“I think it’s a much too narrow lens for domestic security for us, and the big change that I’m trying to push in Home Affairs is all of these big geopolitical challenges that… have huge domestic security implications that Home Affairs wasn’t designed to be addressing.”
Ms O’Neil said she is working with secretary Mike Pezzullo on restructuring the department to “tackle the real challenges here – and that is around foreign interference, around democracy, national resilience, and cybersecurity to name a small handful”.
But she stressed the department will continue to “focus on all of the other things that it was doing before”, bar the work of the Australia Federal Police, which moved out of Home Affairs shortly after the arrival of the Albanese government.
“[The restructure is] really saying let’s think about what domestic security means for us in this very, very difficult period that we’re about to enter as a country and my view is that Home Affairs does need to change quite a bit its work to address those concerns,” Ms O’Neil said.
The comments come as the government prepares to establish a National Office of Cyber Security, led by a coordinator for cyber security, within Home Affairs, to coordinate the government’s cyber security responsibilities.
Greater coordination is one of the issues that the expert advisory board led by former Telstra boss Andy Penn is pressing the government to address with the refresh of the country’s cybersecurity strategy. It is also calling for the harmonisation of Australia’s cybersecurity laws.
“Cyber is at the heart of all of the national security challenges that we face. Every single one of them has a cyber dimension to it, and that problem wasn’t being managed particularly well before. I would say were probably 10 years behind where we need to be on,” Ms O’Neil said.
“We’ve got to push really fast to get ourselves in order, and so we are doing significantly more in Home Affairs on cybersecurity and trying to bring some coordination and spine to the work that’s happening to the Australian government.”
Ms O’Neil added that “how we manage across [the federal] government — and [state and territory] governments — the clean-up of cyber incidents is something that we’re doing a lot of work and thinking on at the moment”, particularly in the wake of the Optus and Medibank data breaches.
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