Why we need a different conversation about national security

Looking at the signs of fragmentation and uncertainty across the Australian security landscape, it is easy to fall back upon denial or fatalism as an excuse not to think about the future.

Critics of a national security agenda for Australia often mistakenly claim it is all about about fear, or that it creates a mirage of absolute safety at the expense of all else that matters in living well.

Instead, security is above all a state of mind that helps us master anxieties by engaging confidently with risk.

Yes, it requires physical protection and capabilities for defence. Lethal danger can hardly be imagined away in Ukraine, in the Middle East, or on the frontlines of China’s coercion in maritime Asia.

But security is also something larger. It is an idea – about what we value, about the future, about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Whatever differing views Australians may hold about security in this age of contestation and change, of disruption and uncertainty, of acceleration and accumulation of risk, one thing is clear.

Business as usual is not enough.

That’s why the National Security College is initiating a new dialogue – a distinctly Australian conversation about national security.

Around Canberra, purposeful and professional deliberations on defence, diplomacy, development, democracy, values, identity, social cohesion, resilience, preparedness, prosperity, technology, energy, supply chains and sustainability are going on all the time.

But often these processes are compartmentalised in silos of specialisation, secrecy, political caution, and the coded vocabulary of the insider.

Or positions are taken on the basis of partisan agendas. Or time horizons are either narrowly within a three-year electoral cycle, or in a temporal never-never that tempts political irresponsibility.

This is hardly new, of course. And there’s been significant effort to improve national co-ordination and preparedness. But sometimes it still seems the present looks depressingly like the past, only more so.

By convening the Securing Our Future conference in Canberra on Tuesday, and kickstarting a conversation around the nation, we don’t just want to amplify the admiration of the problem.

Policy, like politics, is about boring slowly through hard timbers.

And amid disinformation and cultivated mistrust, it’s never been harder.

How can we get social licence for capabilities to guard against risks which the public is not being told much about?

The point is to help.

The country’s strategic challenges demand tough decisions, which can be enabled by a more inclusive conversation.

What exactly are we protecting when we talk about national security? Do we really know and understand? Does the broader public?

How can we get social licence for capabilities to guard against risks which the public is not being told much about?

This is why, when it comes to the security landscape, the gap between what government knows and what it says in public must become narrower, not widen.

This ranges across the full spectrum, from foreign interference to cyber risk, the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure and social cohesion alike, through to the impacts of climate change across our stressed regional environment.

And it very much includes geopolitics and the military balance, including the strategic logic of nuclear-powered submarines, a capability that suits Australia’s long-distance geography.

This greater community awareness is essential if we are to stand a chance of the nation being prepared for an era of global uncertainty greater than at any time since the 1940s.

In those days, this institution where we meet – the Australian National University - was just a pioneering handful of academics in a paddock. Theirs was a vision of national recovery and future strength, of unity, understanding, hope and confidence, advancing Australia from a world ruined by war.

The ANU National Security College is younger still, just 14 years old. Yet, we are true to the same mission, and to its renewal.

In developing people, ideas and networks for a secure Australian future, our chief currency is trust.

Thus, our 100 speakers at this conference include Australian government ministers – for foreign affairs, home affairs and cybersecurity – and shadow ministers for defence and home affairs, as well as other influential parliamentarians with independent outlooks.

They are joined by leaders of government departments and agencies, military chiefs and respected experts from the Indo-Pacific and around the world, alongside voices from Australian academia, industry, civil society and critical First Nations perspectives.

This will begin a broader national process of community consultations on security.

We want to help generate a clearer understanding of what Australians think when they think about national security.

And we will synthesise and frame that knowledge to help government and parliament as they consider policy choices into the future.

This won’t just be a perfunctory foray out of the Canberra bubble and into those other bubbles – corporate boardrooms, state cabinets, think tanks and universities in metropolitan centres.

Our team will hold consultations in a cross-section of locations spanning remote, rural and suburban Australia as well as secondary cities.

We will seek to comprehend the diversity of perspectives in today’s Australia, identifying the risks or realities of fragmentation as well as opportunities for agreement.

And at the end, in 2025, we will prepare and publish a report as an independent resource for governments and parliaments alike.

The sort of resource that would be useful to a nation considering an integrated strategy for its future security.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the ANU National Security College.
This article originally appeared in AFR on 9 April 2024.

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Why we need a different conversation about national security

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‘The National Security College is a joint initiative of the Commonwealth Government and The Australian National University’

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