The government enters 2024 with no shortage of critique and commentary on how to protect Australia’s interests in a volatile world.
Two globally repercussive wars are raging, strategic breakdown in our region is a genuine fear, and the intersection of climate risk, societal mistrust, disinformation, tech disruption, economic shocks and other cross-border contagion bodes ill.
After 19 months in office, there’s also progress and achievement to catalogue, as set out in the prime minister’s pre-Christmas speech to the Lowy Institute.
Stabilisation with China, energised and respectful relations with Pacific and South-East Asian neighbours including agreements with Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Indonesia and the Philippines, a breakthrough with AUKUS-enabling legislation in the US Congress, a focus on the Indo-Pacific region, sustained ties with India, Japan and the Quad, support for Ukraine, declarations of a “principled” approach to the Middle East crisis: it’s a long and largely creditable list.
And it’s never a bad time to remind the nation of the difficult work our leaders and officials do amid turbulent circumstances.
The prime minister’s speech also identified a bar for how foreign and security policy can be effective beyond the immediate term – and asserted, but did not roundly prove, that the nation is getting there.
Albanese spoke of the need for a strategic framework, a national vision, and investment in capabilities and relationships. He identified that honest policy must be informed by an awareness of the global implications of Australia’s every act, word and – although he didn’t quite say it – omission.
World of worsening risk
With that in mind, the government has reached a point where it can no longer avoid open discussion of fundamental questions about national unpreparedness for strategic trouble ahead.
A comprehensive strategy for national security and resilience in a world of worsening risk is not something that can be defined by speeches, however frequent or occasional.
Of course, there’s every reason to assume that much is happening behind the scenes: a classified scaffolding of advice and decision, with bureaucracies and intelligence agencies modelling how such shocks as climate crisis, critical infrastructure failures and any of many possible conflicts involving China would ravage Australia’s security and wellbeing.
At one level, the government’s discipline in messaging has been laudable – no accidental escalation of diplomatic tensions through rhetorical overreach, and minimal exploitation of security issues for political advantage.
On the other hand, the gulf is growing between what the government knows and what it says.
If this is meant to reassure, the risk is that public confusion will be all the greater when crisis comes.
A highly redacted public message is at odds with what one hopes is the stark advice being received from our intelligence, security, diplomatic and policy community about what is really happening in the world. We’re still waiting, for instance, for the promised release of an intelligence assessment on climate change.
In this context, it is perplexing why the government won’t seem to countenance two foundational ideas being promoted by a cross-section of respected policy voices.
Those are that Australia needs a national security strategy and a formal national security adviser to help craft and drive it.
A national security strategy – or as eminent former policy leader Heather Smith and I have argued, a national interest strategy – would provide a transparent explanation of how government is co-ordinating all the levers of national power over the long term.
This could look at how to integrate security with other vital dimensions of the national interest – prosperity, cohesion, sustainability – and with the democratic principles of Australian identity.
Everything, everywhere all at once
An oft-cited reason for scepticism towards a national security strategy and adviser is that these would unduly tie the hands of the political leadership: keeping the nation inconveniently committed to long-term courses of action as electoral currents, world events and resourcing pressures shifted.
But not only is that part of the point, it overlooks that a national security strategy and a national security adviser could make our leaders’ jobs more manageable, not less.
As security expert Danielle Cave and former intelligence chief Paul Symon recently pointed out, an adviser with statutory autonomy would be a force multiplier with their own convening power, reducing the expectation for the PM and other key ministers to be everything, everywhere all at once.
Moreover, a national security adviser could inform the public about the state of the world (and the strategic logic behind, say, AUKUS) in language plainer than our political leaders may wish to use.
Australia is becoming an outlier in its insistence it needs neither strategy nor adviser. For instance, New Zealand, South Korea and Germany recently joined the United States, Japan and Britain in having either or both.
Australia has for years helped Pacific island countries develop national security strategies without feeling the need for its own.
And lest anyone think a national security strategy would become a self-fulfilling prophecy about militarising our geopolitical outlook, the opposite is true. The 2023 Defence Strategic Review already commits to a national defence strategy every two years.
A wider strategy and an autonomous adviser to explain it would help put defence and security policy in context – along with diplomacy, development, prosperity, cohesion and resilience.
The point of a strategy is preparedness for testing times. Politically, it could provide a narrative for leadership to ready the nation – across partisan, portfolio and federal boundaries and into the private sector and our diverse civil society – for the decisions they will need to share.