Opinion: Bigger is not always better

Malcolm Turnbull's "mega department": "...the new requirement forces the existing offices to explain why they should continue to exist independently."
Malcolm Turnbull's "mega department": "...the new requirement forces the existing offices to explain why they should continue to exist independently."

How clever are you? If you're smart, you'll realise that bigger is better. If you're really intelligent, however, you'll know that it's not always best to be huge. It's too early to say if this massively obvious insight has eluded Malcolm Turnbull, but the warning lights are flashing. The definitive instance occurred last week, when the PM suddenly announced a new mega-department that will supposedly oversee all aspects of national security. It almost seemed as if Turnbull actually believed the guff he was speaking. Perhaps the reality is he's not so clever after all.

Pournelle's iron law of bureaucracy, a truth universally acknowledged, insists that the ultimate objective of any organisation rapidly becomes its own expansion, rather than accomplishing its goals. The corollary of the iron law of bureaucracy is that any department that isn't getting bigger is, in fact, shrinking. Enter Peter Dutton, stage right, attempting to wrap the huge mantle of Home Affairs Minister around his intellectually slim figure. Dutton and his underlings appear to have succeeded in an enormous grasp for power. Suddenly, dramatically, the onus has shifted completely.

Instead of having to justify why the new arrangements would make us any safer than the current division of responsibility, the new requirement forces the existing offices to explain why they should continue to exist independently. This is quite ridiculous, particularly as it upends existing arrangements without any evidence or report suggesting they could be improved.

There are numerous problems with institutionalising oversight of so many different functions within the one department. The most obvious are that the new Home Office appears as if it will, effectively, have a monopoly on investigating its own operations. This is not a minor matter. Nor is there any clarity whatsoever into how ASIO and AFP activities might be authorised. More substantially, there's a real danger the separate agencies will lose their focus and their efforts will be dissipated.

Does this reorganisation, in any simple and obvious way, improve the public service or benefit our democracy?

It's important to note that this reorganisation is not prompted by any obvious need or the demands of most of those public servants who will be affected by the changes.

And that's the key question that needs to be answered. Does this reorganisation, in any simple and obvious way, improve the public service or benefit our democracy?

So far, the sole reason advanced for this dramatic move has been the assertion that, somehow or another, things will work more “efficiently”. But exactly how will burdening fewer senior staff with excess responsibilities serve this purpose?

When he challenged Tony Abbott, Turnbull complained his predecessor was indulging in too many “captain's calls”. He promised this would change. That promise, like so much about Turnbull's prime ministership, was empty.

This dramatic shakeup has been announced without any investigation and with little apparent rationale. It's difficult not to conclude that it's been tossed as a sop to satisfy some people's lust for power.

Although perhaps that's unfair. Scoping this reorganisation will buy Turnbull a couple of months longer in the top job and, of course, support from Dutton. It gave him the opportunity to pose in front of a couple of masked special forces soldiers.

At one time Australian PMs preferred to stress peace, whereas now apparently violence is all go. Feeling terrified yet? Perhaps some more black uniforms might help.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.