Securing Australia in the 2020s

This has been a year of global shock: COVID-19 and its economic fallout, intensified strategic struggle around the rise of China, environmental disaster, social turmoil.

The world is in for a decade of disruption, and Australia faces a horizon of risk. Yet commentary often overlooks the capability and agency that our nation, a substantial power in every sense, can bring to the challenges ahead.

In an address to the National Press Club, Head of the NSC Professor Rory Medcalf offered a distinct roadmap for Australia to protect its interests and values in the decade ahead.

The address is available to watch in full here, the transcript is available below.

Securing Australia in the 2020s: How are we preparing?

Remarks to the National Press Club, 9 December 2020

Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College, Australian National University

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where I’m speaking today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

As an Australian, I sometimes find it sad that one of this continent’s finest creatures, the black swan, has been co-opted in the language of risk analysis as a symbol of bad surprises.

Most of us have heard the unfortunate term ‘Black Swan Event’.

One feature of a Black Swan Event is that it is predictable - in hindsight.

Like COVID-19.

But in truth there is nothing shocking about a black swan.

To Australia’s First Peoples, these birds have always been reassuringly normal.

Personally, when describing strategic shock, I prefer the term Black Elephant.

It’s a black swan crossed with the elephant in the room.

A problem so big, so obvious, so difficult, that the polite thing is to say and do nothing about it, until too late.

For Australia, 2020 has been a rampage of three Black Elephants:

• catastrophic climate-induced bushfires

• the COVID-19 pandemic

• and a China that is turning economic goods into goads of coercion.

All three involve risks we could have foreseen.

And it’s time to consider what other Black Elephants are out there.

Perhaps the low resilience of our energy future, including reliance on imported transport fuels and our slow, politicised progress away from carbon? Or the often frugal resourcing of our national research and innovation base? Or a regional flashpoint finally descending to war?

The last 30 years are the fading memory of a holiday from history. We can’t go back.

In this new world, strategic competition between powerful nations is heightened.

Confrontation and conflict are already occurring, mostly below the threshold of armed force. But war is becoming imaginable.

Our interests, values and the way they combine to make this country’s sovereignty and identity: these will be under constant pressure from multiple directions.

Earlier this year I published a book titled Contest for the Indo-Pacific, on the dangerous strategic dynamics of our region. Here Australia is not alone, as many nations must find a way between conflict and capitulation in the face of assertive Chinese power.

This year’s vicissitudes have prompted an acceleration of middle players – India, Japan, even Europe – seeking new ways to collaborate and respond to the challenge, which is becoming global. And the incoming American Administration is promising a new premium on democratic partnerships.

The new geopolitics has made the character of risk a constant shape-changer: connectivity, cyberspace and great-power rivalry are collapsing the boundaries between security and economics, the domestic and the international, people and technology.

So the vital terrain for national and international security is now what happens at home – here, and right around our federated Australia.
“Unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared,” wrote Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin recently, in the report of the Royal Commission into natural disaster arrangements following the disastrous bushfires.

His words – and many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations – can apply to security more broadly: where we are dealing with pandemic, terrorism, supply-chain disruption, foreign coercion, or worse.

Our guideposts to securing Australia in the 2020s include risk, resilience, and responsibility.

And a sense of integrated and inclusive national policy.

This means national and collaborative leadership. A frank conversation with the public about risks, rights and responsibilities. A clear, robust and accountable system. Unbroken linkages across the Federation. A sense of common purpose. And all within a framework that respects our democratic institutions, the place of partisanship (and bipartisanship) too.

Preparedness is key.

Because a paradox of security is that sometimes it is necessary to accept increased risk now in order to build resilience against even greater risks later on.

And that is how I believe history will read much of the China trauma our diplomatic and economic relations are going through at present.

Recently I was at a meeting to discuss the question ‘when it comes to Australia’s standing in the world, how are we doing as a nation?’

But the right question is ‘how are we preparing?’

To the credit of the Commonwealth Government and our national security agencies, and to the Opposition for its broad bipartisanship, Australia has made substantial progress in recent years – in some areas.

We are building or reforming many of the policy institutions, frameworks and capabilities we need to give Australia a decent chance in a contested future. Our defence force modernisation, an Indo-Pacific foreign policy based on activism and a new web of partnerships, machinery of government changes including Home Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence, new cyber capabilities, and the legislation to empower more concerted action in the national interest – including with regard to foreign interference.

None of these have been perfect or uncontroversial, but all have been necessary, as building block towards an Australia than can begin to approximate the sum of its parts when it engages and defends.

What is needed now is a clear and frank articulation by government about how and why all these pieces fit together – and what other preparations must be done.

It’s time for a national security strategy – or perhaps more accurately a national interest strategy.

This could look at how to integrate security with other vital areas of policy related to the national interest: prosperity and social cohesion.

If we are playing a long game, and I believe we must, then we need a vision for a confident, resilient and inclusive Australia that explains how it all fits together: sustainability, energy, infrastructure, health, education, technology and innovation – on which I am sure my colleague Michelle Price will shortly have more to say.

This national strategy should address the tensions between security and prosperity, or between security and cohesion in our multicultural society.

If we take the long view, these goals can mutually reinforce each other.

Security is one of those deceptive terms that defies easy definition: the ultimate ambiguous symbol, easy to politicise.

A national interest strategy will work best if it is supported by a new national security conversation – one that recognises the true nature of security as being about confidence and inclusion, rather than fear and exclusion.

Security is not some absolute, but a state of mind that involves reducing our anxiety by engaging with risk.

It’s about the Australian people, all of us.

So much of the unfinished business in preparing Australia for the long disruption ahead requires a truly inclusive national conversation.

This includes building trusted and apolitical engagement with all parts of the community, including Australians of Chinese origin.

National security officials are not ideally placed to lead this conversation.

There could be scope, for instance, for an independent voice – let’s call her or him something like a sovereignty commissioner – to sustain constant consultations and outreach.

Parliament, too, has a larger role to play in the inclusive national security story. All parliamentarians – Federal and State – would benefit from greater situational awareness about risks like foreign influence.

For its part, the Commonwealth Government needs to keep becoming more open to risk-management in sharing sensitive, even classified briefings, with the private sector, infrastructure providers, State Governments and universities. And this should extend to the Opposition.

The risk-management approach should include reviewing the way we do security clearances for government officials.

The rigidities of the current system, which dates back to the 1950s, can be an obstacle to harnessing the talent of multicultural Australia, or simply new generations who live and think differently.

Our new security ethos also needs to include all levels of government as genuine partners.

State and Territory governments have always been focused on serving their communities, and rightly so.

But now thanks to the new geopolitics they are also at the front line of national security.

This has long been the case on issues of terrorism and social cohesion, where the arrangements for communication and coordination between Federal security agencies and State police forces have become strong, trusted and responsive.

State and Territory governments have serious capabilities, and can use them with great effect on security issues broadly defined, from countering extremism to disaster relief to the successful frontline response to the pandemic. Now they need to be essential players in a unified national response to contemporary risks which touch ordinary Australian lives – from economic coercion against primary producers, to cyber attacks on health providers, to propaganda campaigns inside migrant communities. State and Territory governments have unique relationships with communities – and information about community needs and sentiments – that they can interpret to give the Federal Government a clearer picture about this country, its interests and values. But they can also be seen by foreign powers as weak links in the protection of Australian sovereignty.

Now I’m speaking from Canberra, and I’m acutely aware that the States and Territories are where it gets real, more connected to the daily decisions, welfare, and livelihoods of Australian communities than the Federal Government can ever be.

They don’t deal with the abstractions of diplomatic talking points or strategic analysis, but the tangible day-to-day elements of national resilience and national vulnerability – an inclusive society, vital services like health, education and policing, critical infrastructure, and the nation’s frontline geography.
So State and Territory governments have special responsibilities in securing Australia. They need to be equipped to do so.

It is absurd that our State and Territory administrations generally do not have personnel with the job descriptions or clearances to connect with the intelligence and security advice the Australian Government is able to provide.

This means that Premiers or Chief Ministers are not letting themselves get the trusted advice and information they need.
All States and Territories should set up a dedicated national security unit, within the department of the Premier or Chief Minister.

This would involve a small team of officials with high-level security clearances, allowing them access to classified security information and intelligence.
They could provide key advice to the first ministers and first secretaries of States and Territories in the National Cabinet and the bureaucratic arrangements that are developing to support it long-term.
This would allow at last for a genuinely national security conversation – and give States and Territories a chance to credibly affect national policy.

It would be a modest but powerful investment – maybe five or six officials per jurisdiction, with secure facilities, perhaps co-funded by the Commonwealth or co-located with the State offices of Federal agencies.
Commonwealth agencies would need to be forward-leaning in their willingness to share security information and intelligence with the State and Territory units.
Implementation would not be simple. This would begin as an exercise in risk-management and trust.

This proposal is not about telling States to accept Commonwealth security assessments at face value.

Having their own objective and informed security advice would help the States and Territories maintain scrutiny on the use of the new Federal powers to block or reverse agreements with foreign partners, to help ensure it is sparing and proportionate.

This is about positioning the States and Territories to be more active and responsible contributors to security outcomes. It is also about informing and shaping policy at a national level, and making for a genuinely two-way conversation.

It could also reduce the political mistrust that can cut both ways, and make for a more mature decision-making culture – on all sides – when it comes to the national interest.

Likewise, it is important that when the government imposes positive security obligations on corporate leaders in relation to cyber security, there should correspondingly be sensitive briefings to explain the risks. And preferably cleared personnel inside private sector, technology and research organisations as well.

Which is a good point for me to hand over to my AustCyber colleague, Michelle Price.

Thank you.

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