Sensible path to a secure future

Australian flag flying at Parliament House in Canberra

This article, by Professor Rory Medcalf AM, appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 16 December 2022.

In recent years, our world has seen chilling insecurity, from Kyiv to Kabul, from Hong Kong to the Himalayan Galwan Valley, from Wuhan to a thousand corridors of COVID-19, to bushfires right here and rising waters everywhere.

What has changed utterly in our globalised world is that risk is now viral. The UNDP’s Human Development Report now calls the new normal a world of worry.

So in this world, how can Australians make sense of national security?

More than two thousand years ago, Cicero gave Latin a new word, se-curitas meaning literally ‘without care’.

Australians have their own translation: ‘no worries’.

Security is not just about barriers and weapons: it is a state of mind that reduces our anxiety by engaging confidently with risk. It is freedom from fear.

In Australia, our security is inseparable from our proud national values and identity as a democracy and a multicultural society, where the rights, freedoms and equal opportunities for all are advanced and respected.

As the AUSMIN communique in Washington has just underscored, the Albanese Labor government has no illusions about the strategic environment. It is now intensely contested.

China’s military modernisation, full-spectrum assertiveness and ambitions for regional dominance are one part of that picture. Putin’s grievous demonstration that war is real, that nightmares can come true, is another.

But we are also seeing elements of a broader vision about what constitutes security and the national interest. We are learning that when sorrows come, they come not only in battalions but in economic, societal and environmental shocks as well.

Meanwhile, other threats to social cohesion, democratic institutions and the multicultural identity of modern Australia may be down but certainly not out.

Foreign interference, espionage and cyber risk may now officially be dominant priorities, but terrorism, racism and conspiracism also keep our security agencies very worried indeed.

So a challenge for the Australian Government now is to demonstrate its seriousness about a truly integrated approach to national preparedness and security.

It’s high time for a national security strategy or more precisely a national interest strategy. Several respected voices, such as incoming Australian Institute of International Affairs president Heather Smith, are making a similar call.

This should look at how to integrate security with other vital dimensions of the national interest - prosperity, supply chains, cohesion, sustainability – and with principles of Australian identity: equity, inclusion, dignity and democracy.

It should take a long view focused on how these goals can reinforce one another.

For instance, world-class educational opportunities for Australians are the most profound intergenerational investment we can make in true security.

There are fair arguments against a formal strategy. It ties the hands of the leadership, making it harder to change course as events occur, politics shift, or resources diminish.

And a great deal of coordination occurs within government already, bringing together security and economic viewpoints on China, COVID, supply chains and critical technology.

But the Canberra security caste should not assume the Australian community realises much of this.

The true value of a strategy would be a narrative for leadership to ready the whole nation – across political lines, federal borders, the private sector and into our diverse civil society – for the tough decisions they will need to share.

The Australian people are witnessing a world of disruption, and they deserve an honest national conversation about what it means for them.

The recent speech about resilience and security by Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neill is a welcome beginning.

We need a national narrative that reflects the rights and responsibilities of all parts of this country in working together for making this country secure, now and for the generations ahead.

For instance, in the years ahead the real risk of strategic confrontation or even war in our region, means the concept of national mobilisation needs to become an accepted part of community thinking, and not some quiet bureaucratic plan our political elite would rather not frighten the voters with.

Within the next decade, Australia will not credibly provide for its security without radical changes to our thinking about whose job it is.

It is only a matter time before some form of national service will need to be considered.

This would not be the rejected conscription of 50 years ago, but an opportunity to build a national reserve in the varied skills needed for climate disasters, national resilience and civil defence.

We need career mobility between government and the wider world, so security clearances are transportable, building an expanding reservoir of trusted personnel in business, civil society and academia.

Commonwealth public service careers should become open to permanent residents, in those many jobs not requiring security clearances, enabling a larger pool of Australian citizens to pursue cleared roles. And Commonwealth public service should be a fast track to citizenship.

As for the clearance model itself, it needs to be comprehensively revisited, with a fresh look at risk management and wider acceptance of the life choices and diverse backgrounds of young Australians.

A prepared Australia will need to make the most of our most valued resource, our people.

To have a chance of being secure in the long run, we have to accept risk now and pay the price of preparedness. If we want no worries in the future, we must brace for them now.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at The Australian National University. This is adapted from his 2022 Order of Australia Lecture.

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Sensible path to a secure future

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