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 Secretary's overview

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The year in review

In 2017-18 the department achieved positive outcomes in developing policy and programs, providing high quality advice to government and continuing to support the Attorney-General as the First Law Officer.

We played an integral part in implementing significant reforms to national intelligence and domestic security arrangements announced by the Prime Minister on 18 July 2017. This included transferring responsibilities for national security, law enforcement policy and emergency management to the new Home Affairs portfolio. The machinery of government changes also saw the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security join the portfolio. The addition of these functions enhances the Attorney-General’s oversight of the nation’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies.

Our ability to implement the reforms is attributed to our staff who continued working with professionalism, determination and resilience during ongoing periods of substantial change. At the same time, we also successfully progressed many areas of reform that impact our community, especially those who are most vulnerable.

In terms of human rights, we helped deliver major law reforms for the nation. The year will perhaps be best remembered for the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey and monumental changes to the Marriage Act providing marriage equality for all Australians. The department played a key role in providing policy and legal expertise and counsel to government on this issue.

The department has been involved in many matters before the High Court of Australia. In particular, we managed the complex issues presented by Section 44 of the Constitution involving dual citizenship and parliamentarians. Our advice and services greatly assisted the Government navigate the complexities involved.

In collaboration with the Department of Social Services, we implemented measures under the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children to extend support services for families experiencing domestic violence.

Protecting older Australians has been another area of focus. We contributed to the More Choices for a Longer Life Budget package, which will provide for front-line services to protect older people into the future. We also commenced work on developing a National Plan on Elder Abuse with the states and territories. The ultimate goal is the safety, dignity, equality, health and independence of older people in our society.

Australia’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture means we have a leadership role in building the national oversight processes to prevent mistreatment of people in our detention systems.

An effective and open justice system requires sound laws, robust and independent institutions and experienced professionals who can focus on the people they protect. To this end, we instigated structural reforms to the federal courts to help families save time and costs in family law disputes.

We launched new services and trialled improvements to existing services, and supported policy and legislative reforms to enhance support for families traversing the family law system. We put special emphasis on providing additional support services for families experiencing family violence, and on providing opportunities for people from Indigenous and culturally-diverse communities to train and work in the family law services sector.

We developed the Family Law Amendment (Parenting Management Hearings) Bill 2017. We also supported the Government to commission and establish a comprehensive review of the family law system, which is being undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

In addition, we developed the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Cross-Examination of Parties) Bill 2018, which provides safeguards for victims of family violence so they will not have to endure cross-examination in court from their perpetrators.

We have made significant progress in national safety and security. Australia's national security has also been greatly enhanced with the successful passage of the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill. Both are critical tools for national security agencies to counter the evolving threats faced by Australia and other countries.

Joint cyber security centres have been established around the country and will play a major role in keeping us prepared for and safe from cyber attacks. Our success in ensuring these centres are operational ahead of schedule is an excellent example of our ability to collaborate with our stakeholders and other jurisdictions.

Internationally, we also achieved success. Of particular significance was the conciliation we led with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade resulting in Australia and Timor-Leste agreeing to a maritime boundary treaty. This was an historic agreement that will benefit both countries.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory both concluded in late 2017. We are actively involved in advising the government on implementing the recommendations from the Child Abuse Royal Commission, as well as safeguarding all commission records. We also helped to establish the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

The operating result for the department for 2017-18 was a surplus of $20.506m after providing for income tax expense and asset revaluation increases. The operating surplus is due to a strong performance by the Australian Government Solicitor over the financial year and the timing of implementing budget measures. More information about the department’s financial performance can be found on page 93 in Part 4 of this report.

Outlook for the year ahead

From July 2018, the department is operating under a new structure developed to maximise our support to the Attorney-General in his role as First Law Officer and minister responsible for integrity and oversight.

The revised structure will facilitate more effective engagement with stakeholders by bringing together areas with related functions and expertise in line with our priorities. The structure reflects our commitment to embracing change, challenges and new opportunities in achieving better outcomes for government.

To this end, we will work towards government priorities, including:

  • progressing structural reforms to the federal courts (excluding the High Court) with the aim of reducing costs and waiting times – especially to assist with family law matters
  • progressing family law reforms and providing advice on the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the family law system
  • progressing reforms to the Government’s use of legal services
  • developing the first National Plan on Elder Abuse and progressing a national approach to enduring powers of attorney
  • leading the delivery of responses to the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, including a national apology to victims and survivors affected by institutional child sexual abuse
  • supporting the comprehensive review of intelligence legislation to ensure that agencies have the tools and framework they need to be effective and keep Australians safe and secure
  • reforming the Commonwealth Debt Agreement system to provide greater certainty for debtors and creditors
  • supporting the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

This work would not be possible without the dedication, expertise and skill of our staff, who are our greatest asset. Our strong culture and positive staff engagement were again reflected in our impressive results in the 2018 Australian Public Service Employee Census. Our ability to collaborate, lead and innovate will ensure we continue to deliver on our purpose to achieve a just and secure society.

Chris Moraitis PSM

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