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Secretary's Review

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The key focus for the department this year was supporting the priorities of a new government after the election on 7 September 2013, and adjusting policies and programmes to deliver on those priorities. The change of government saw Senator the Hon George Brandis QC take office as Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts and the Hon Michael Keenan MP appointed Minister for Justice.

Following the election, responsibilities for cultural affairs and support for the arts were transferred to the department. Responsibility for most Indigenous community safety and justice programmes transferred to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We continue to work with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ensure that our work complements their programmes and is contributing to improving safety in communities across Australia.

The government's confidence in our ability to handle a wide range of important functions rests on the efforts of everyone in the department. I particularly want to acknowledge the enthusiasm and commitment of our staff including their professionalism in the way they have implemented government reforms while participating in structural changes to the department.

With these changes in place, we are well placed to deliver programmes and policies to maintain and improve Australia's law and justice framework, strengthen national security and emergency management, and provide support for arts and culture.

Achievements

The theme of this year's annual report is engaging with communities and business, which is central to the work of the department. We work closely and cooperatively with our portfolio and other government agencies, advisory bodies, training institutions, businesses, professional associations, community organisations and citizens in achieving our objectives. The following examples give a small insight into the scope and diversity of our activities.

Reducing Australia's regulatory burden

As part of the government's first repeal day on 26 March 2014, we collaborated on a whole-of-government repeal of nearly 10,000 redundant legislative instruments and more than 1,000 redundant amending Acts made from 1901 to 1969. The department is currently working on a second tranche of repeals. We also implemented a variety of other initiatives to reduce red tape affecting businesses, community organisations and individuals, including:

  • targeted exemptions from the requirements of the Australian Privacy Principles as they apply to Australian banks and credit unions facilitating international money transfers
  • removing the requirements to make and remove registrations for short-term leases of certain types of property from the Personal Property Securities Register
  • streamlining the classification processes for publications, films and computer games, including introducing faster and more cost-effective classification arrangements
  • instituting targeted exemptions under the anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing rules to remove duplicative obligations
  • reforming marriage laws by allowing the use of Australian passports as an often more accessible alternative form of evidence of date and place of birth.

Enhancing security

The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat to the security of all Australians both here in Australia and overseas. The department has played a key role in developing new counter-terrorism policy and legislative measures to ensure agencies are better able to combat the evolving challenges of home grown terrorism as well as the threat from Australians who participate in terrorist activities overseas. On 5 August 2014, this work culminated in the Prime Minister's announcement that the government will invest $630 million in additional counter-terrorism funding over the next four years, while intensifying our engagement with partner countries and international organisations.

Improving the effectiveness of the justice system

In 2013–14 we implemented a national roll-out of a self-representation service in registries of the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court across Australia. The service provides assistance to people who are unable to otherwise afford legal representation and offers face-to-face and telephone legal information as well as advice on how best to present cases. It helps people understand their rights and responsibilities in a wide range of civil law areas such as employment law, bankruptcy law and discrimination. It also helps people to understand the best course of action to resolve disputes as well as the social and financial consequences of pursuing an action through the courts. Where appropriate, the service can also help a person secure pro bono representation in court.

Combating crime and corruption

The department worked to ensure that the proceeds of crime were used to fight crime. The first round of grant funding under the Safer Streets Programme was opened in May 2014 to implement initiatives worth more than $19 million as part of the government's $50 million commitment to delivering effective solutions for crime hot spots and anti-social behaviour. A second round of funding is expected to be held later in 2014.

In December 2013, the department assumed the co-chair position (alongside Italy) on the G20
Anti-Corruption Working Group under Australia's 2014 G20 Presidency. As co-chair, the department is finalising work on the Group's 2013–14 Anti-Corruption Action Plan.

Encouraging support for the arts

The department made changes to the Cultural Gifts Programme to simplify and improve assessment processes and reduce waiting times for applicants. This programme encourages Australians to donate items of cultural significance from private collections to public art galleries, museums, libraries and archives. Gifts can range from paintings, books, sculptures, manuscripts and personal papers to jewellery and ceramics, and even include entire technological, mechanical, scientific or social history collections. As a result of the changes, average waiting times have been reduced by half. In 2013–14 approximately 450 donations were endorsed, valued at approximately $30 million.

Leading international litigation

The International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in favour of Australia in the case Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v Japan: New Zealand intervening) on 31 March 2014. We coordinated the Australian Government's response which included working with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Environment to prepare and present Australia's written and oral arguments.

The positive outcome for Australia was due in no small part to the ability and determination of the legal team from the department, which had principal responsibility for development of the case. This included collection of detailed evidence and development of convincing arguments on complex and novel legal issues. This success highlights the significant legal expertise and skill of the department as a provider of international legal advice and litigation services to government.

Outlook for 2014–15

Looking to the year ahead, one of our most important tasks will be responding to the evolving threat of terrorism. In particular, we are concerned about Australians who travel to conflicts and return to Australia armed with both intent and skills acquired from fighting or training with extremist groups. The department will continue to develop and implement a range of national security measures to address the most pressing gaps in our counter-terrorism framework, including:

  • legislative reform to address the security risks posed by foreign fighters
  • developing initiatives to prevent and disrupt violent extremism
  • improving the technical capabilities of our agencies and international partners.

The need to protect Australia's telecommunications infrastructure from unauthorised access, interference and sabotage has reached a critical point. Proposed Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms will establish a sustainable security framework to manage risks to the most vulnerable parts of Australia's telecommunications infrastructure. We will also develop legislation to ensure that telecommunications data is available into the future to support the investigation of serious offences and security threats. Telecommunications data is critical to investigations and our work on data retention will support and enhance its availability against changing business models that see data availability being eroded.

Building disaster resilience is an enduring national priority. We look forward to the outcomes of the Productivity Commission inquiry into natural disaster funding arrangements which are likely to result in significant recommendations for reform to better prepare for, and mitigate, the impact of disasters.

Working together with Australian Government agencies and the states and territories, we will develop a new national system for intercountry adoption to implement the May 2014 decision of the Council of Australian Governments. The department will also lead work to amalgamate key Commonwealth merits review tribunals.

We will develop a package of reforms to modernise the Copyright Act 1968, especially with respect to the issue of online piracy as well as working with the states and territories to deliver a national plan to respond to organised crime and target law enforcement efforts for maximum effect. We will also pursue the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution.

In the arts arena, we will deliver a review of opera, which will make recommendations on the ways in which the delivery of opera can be improved, with a particular focus on improving outcomes for audiences nationally.

As always, we will continue to strengthen our relationship with the community and business, our capacity to effectively deliver on the Australian Government's commitments, the efficiency, quality and agility of our services, and our ability to identify and address future challenges.

This is my last secretary's review, having given notice of my intention to resign on 31 August 2014. I have greatly enjoyed the privilege and opportunity to serve the people and the Australian Government in this position since 1 September 2008. I thank the ministers who have held office in this portfolio and all staff for their support over that six-year period.

Roger Wilkins AO
Secretary

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