Cyber defence goes missing in Australian Cabinet reshuffle

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's new ministry cuts the Australian government's focus on cybersecurity at exactly the time it needs it most.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

A new prime minister needs to make a coded statement or two when choosing their new ministry. An obvious statement of Scott Morrison's new ministry, announced on Sunday, is that cybersecurity is no longer worth specific attention.

Angus Taylor, who was previously the junior Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security under Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, is now the Minister for Energy. I'm sure we'll all appreciate his views on what he's called the "new climate religion", which has "little basis on fact and everything to do with blind faith". We may also be amused by his support for loopy theories about the dangers of wind farms.

But Taylor hasn't been replaced. There's now no specific focus on law enforcement and cybersecurity. Those responsibilities have apparently been absorbed back into the general ministerial overview and guidance provided by Dutton himself.

While he's still minister for Home Affairs, Dutton has lost the Immigration portfolio. That was a slab of work. One might argue, therefore, that he now has more time on his hands, and that a junior minister for the cybers is no longer needed.

First, Dutton isn't exactly strong on the idea that digital communications need to be protected. As a former cop, and as what might politely be called a law-and-order maximalist, Dutton sees digital communications as something to be intercepted, and the more interception of it the better.

Only in April, Dutton's head of department Mike Pezzullo was sprung proposing that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) be allowed to spy on Australian citizens. While government figures attempted to hose that down as being not a "formal" proposal, it was nevertheless somewhere in Pezzullo's brain, and therefore in Dutton's. Dutton would also not be averse to deploying soldiers on the streets.

It's not too hard to imagine this duo seeing national security and digital privacy as being mutually exclusive, to the detriment of the latter. After all, the government is already misrepresenting the anti-encryption legislation currently under consideration.

While a junior minister might also be a close friend of Laura Norder, a second mind in the room could better represent the views of the cyber defenders. At the very least, they'd be better able to handle the intellectually challenging technicalities of the portfolio, something Dutton may not have the ... er ... time for.

Second, the new government structure for Australia's cyber defences is only eight weeks old.

The ASD became a statutory authority, taking with it the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), on July 1. ASD reports to the Minister for Defence, now Christopher Pyne. Cybersecurity policy development, however, remains within the Department of Home Affairs. Sorting out how that will work in practice will take time.

New ASD chief Mike Burgess, and ACSC boss Alastair MacGibbon, are both generally well-regarded, and have reputations for getting things done. But again, some dedicated ministerial resources might help smooth the integration of policy and process between Defence and Home Affairs.

One can only hope that having set up the new cyber structures, and having installed good people to sort it out, that Australia will continue to move forward without dedicated ministerial oversight, or Malcolm Turnbull's hands-on enthusiasm.

On matters digital more broadly, it's worth noting that Human Services Minister Michael Keenan continues to include Digital Transformation in his responsibilities. In Turnbull's ministry, he was styled "Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation". Now he's "Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation".

Once more, the PM is no longer taking a hands-on approach, which some might see as demoting the importance of digital transformation. It also means that Keenan is now to blame when it all goes wrong.

It's also worth noting that Marise Payne, a reportedly competent defence minister who seems to understand the role of cybers in her portfolio, is now foreign minister. I expect her to continue to support Australia's assertive diplomatic efforts in the cyber realm through our Ambassador for Cyber Affairs Dr Tobias Feakin.

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