One of the efficiency measures recommended by the Commission of Audit was to merge the border control functions of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (Customs) into a ‘single, integrated border agency’. The Commission’s recommendation rested on two grounds—that the consolidation ‘has the potential to generate significant savings’ and would provide the ‘optimal structure’ to pursue a more effective approach to border protection through ‘a series of integrated activities both beyond and within the border’. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection announced on 9 May 2014 that the Government would adopt the Commission’s recommendation and establish the Australian Border Force (ABF) from 1 July 2015. Echoing the Commission, he stated that it would be ‘a reform measure, not simply a savings measure’.
Costs and potential savings
The 2014–15 Budget includes $480.5 million over four years (with an additional $231.4 flagged for the following two years) to consolidate Customs into the DIBP. More than half of the cost ($272.3 million over four years and $365.3 million over six) will come from existing portfolio resources, with the remainder sourced through ‘improved revenue collection … through the use of analytics and detailed data modelling, new processes for revenue collection and targeted campaigns to improve compliance’. The consolidation, combined with the transfer of other functions out of DIBP and Customs in 2013 Machinery of Government changes, is anticipated to lead to a staffing reduction of approximately 480 full-time positions (or 3.4 per cent). It appears all of these positions are expected to go during
2014–15 and mostly from DIBP, with the average staffing levels of DIBP and Customs respectively forecasted to drop by 400 and 80 (which includes the transfer of the Anti-Dumping Commission out of Customs) over the year ahead.
The Commission considered savings may be generated by ‘removing duplication, better integrating and improving operational systems and practices, reducing staff, as well as consolidating back office functions and rationalising property’. The Government has not published detailed costings, but has claimed that the measure will produce ‘hundreds of millions in savings’ that it will re-invest into the ABF.
During 2014–15, a series of reforms and capability improvements will be implemented in Customs. Customs will then be abolished on 1 July 2015, leaving the DIBP and, within it, the ABF. While the ABF will be headed by a Commissioner who will report directly to the Minister, it will not be a standalone agency, and there will be ‘a reporting link’ to the Secretary of DIBP for administrative purposes. The ABF will bring together frontline staff from Australia’s air and sea ports; those working in immigration or customs investigations, compliance and enforcement; management of detention facilities and removal activities; and staff working in operational roles overseas. All corporate services and policy functions will sit within DIBP. Visa and trade service functions will be undertaken by DIBP, but consideration will be given to moving them across to the ABF at a later stage.
Creation of a single Australian border agency was previously rejected by the 2008 Review of Homeland and Border Security. Only the summary and conclusions of the report are publicly available, so it is not possible to compare the ABF with any particular model that may have been considered. However, the document notes that the temptation to create new organisations or merge existing ones to address evolving security threats carries several risks. One such risk is that other service delivery, policy, program and regulatory functions of some of the agencies concerned could be jeopardised by restructuring them around their security roles. Given the Minister’s emphasis on the ABF as a national security agency, and the breadth of the roles and functions of both DIBP and Customs, this is particularly relevant. More specifically, the review stated ‘[r]ather than bringing key border functions together in a “single border agency”, a whole-of-government strategic planning framework would better suit Australia’.
The Minister stated that the Government had studied the successes and failures of similar reforms overseas, particularly in the UK and the US, and that the ABF is ‘a hybrid of the current UK Home Office model’. The model proposed does resemble what the UK now has in place, where its Border Force, previously part of the troubled UK Border Agency, became a ‘law enforcement command’ within the Home Office in 2012. The move came after the Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA found that border controls had been relaxed at Heathrow and other ports without ministerial permission. However, two more recent reports have highlighted continuing problems with the Border Force, with one concluding that the move was ‘expected to strengthen its capability. But there is little evidence, some 18 months later, of progress in tackling the legacy issues’. It will be important that the Government continues to heed the lessons from overseas reforms, as well as giving due weight to Australia’s particular circumstances, as this measure is implemented over the coming years.
The Customs reforms funded in the 2014–15 Budget, which largely build upon reforms already underway or foreshadowed under the former Government, are:
- $98.9 million for enforcement, including establishing a Strategic Border Command (the formation of which was flagged in the Customs Blueprint for Reform 2013–18, released in June 2013) and acquisition of six vessels suitable for inshore and coastal operations
- $256.6 million for intelligence and systems, including new capabilities to support the National Border Targeting Centre (the establishment of which was a 2013–14 Budget measure)
- $70.9 million for trade and travel, including a new ‘trusted trader’ framework (also in the Blueprint for Reform 2013–18) and
- $53.6 million ‘for the consolidation, workforce measures and training, including creation of the ABF College and enhanced integrity measures’ (the latter of which form a key plank of the Blueprint for Reform 2013–18).
. Portfolio budget statements, op. cit., pp. 26, 33, 41, 97.
. Towards responsible government, op. cit., p. 208.
. A new force, op. cit.
. See further C Berg, ‘Beware the Border Force fetish’, The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 May 2014, accessed 15 May 2014. Only one of DIBP’s three outcomes is focused on border protection, while only one of Customs’ three programmes is focused on enforcement: Portfolio budget statements, op. cit., pp. 21, 95–6.
. Report of the Review of Homeland and Border Security, op. cit.
. A new force, op. cit.
. UK Home Office, ‘Border Force’, UK Home Office website, accessed 15 May 2014.
. Blueprint for reform, op. cit., p. 36.
. Ibid., pp. 4–7, 16–17, 26–29.
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