Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia

24 May 2016

An overarching strategy for Australia’s national security is urgently needed, with a long overdue foreign affairs white paper a priority, writes Rory Medcalf.

The Australian Federal election is likely to be dominated, understandably, by economic and social issues. But Australia’s security and foreign policy environment is marked by rapid change and complex uncertainty.

From terrorism to resource insecurity, from the assertive rise of China to the impact of disruptive technologies, especially cyber – Australia faces a crowded horizon of risk, requiring a whole-of-nation response and long term planning.

This is at odds with the short-termism and fragmentation that has beset our politics.

The credibility of leaders and political parties should depend on how seriously they endeavour to bring Australia to confront its strategic challenges.

The Coalition government deserves credit for three policy blueprints in the past year on security, broadly defined.

Last year’s counter-terrorism strategy, titled Strengthening our Resilience, was released by the Council of Australian Governments, federal, state, territory and local. It was based on the informed advice of security agencies, not on ideology or a quest for partisan advantage.

In February, the long-awaited Defence White Paper was released. It offered a realistic, though cautiously worded, assessment of the regional and global security environment. (Full disclosure: I was an adviser to the process.) The Prime Minister himself acknowledged that Australia’s security challenges have not been so complex and uncertain in a long time. In plain English, things are getting worse.

Significantly, the white paper offered a coherent set of strategic policy objectives and tasks. It outlined a sensible force structure, ambitious but achievable for a self-respecting power.

It explained capability decisions for the predominantly maritime force, such as submarines, that we need in our Indo-Pacific region, and provided a costed pathway to acquire them.

And it did this in language generally free of ideology. Little wonder Labor endorsed the thrust of the white paper and committed itself to holding the government to account in its delivery.

More on this: Podcast - Aus Defence White Paper:good, bad, or just wrong? | Hugh White & Stephan Fruehling

Most recently, the cyber security strategy sets out a framework for cooperation between government and industry, as well as between Australia and international partners, in securing cyberspace – the golden thread of our critical national infrastructure.

Cyber is precisely the kind of disruptive innovation that a clever middle power should exploit not endure. It is welcome that the Government has now acknowledged that Australia has a cyber deterrent – an offensive retaliatory capability – to protect its interests against state as well as non-state actors.

All three documents can and should command support across the political spectrum. These are wheels that nobody will gain from reinventing.

What’s missing?

What is most absent is an overarching national security strategy. The last attempt Australia saw in this domain was in January 2013, under the Gillard Labor Government. That remains a reasoned effort to capture in an integrated way the diverse challenges facing our security, and the logic of coordinating a whole-of-government response. We can certainly do better than the flag-draped ‘national security statement’, defined narrowly about terrorism, that the Abbott government broadcast a year ago.

Times have changed since 2013. Our security environment has deteriorated further. Those days were before the vicious upsurge of Islamic State and its misguided sympathisers in parts of the Australian community, or the rise in tensions around Russian and Chinese coercion of others, or the extension of cyber as a domain of threat for the entire economy, or the wide realisation that foreign ownership of critical infrastructure had become a legitimate national security issue.

And it was well before most of us imagined an unpredictable Donald Trump in the White House, or what that one-man strategic shock could do to the alliance on which Australia’s defence policy so depends.

That 2013 security strategy was a whole-of-government blueprint for marshalling Commonwealth agencies in the protection and advancement of the national interest. Now we need to think whole-of-nation strategy, with a responsibility placed on the private sector, on state and territory governments, and on the community itself.

Intriguingly, the defence white paper promises a Turnbull Government will make ‘regular national security statements’ to parliament.

More is needed – not merely statements that list problems, but strategies that explain which challenges are being prioritised, what resources are being allocated to meet them, and how the efforts of the nation are being joined together for maximum effect.

Within the national security framework, another unsustainable gap is the lack of a foreign affairs white paper, or something similar.

It has been 13 years since we have seen a comprehensive government effort to explain foreign policy in the context of Australia’s national interest, and the world has changed not a little.

The Gillard government’s 2012 Asian Century white paper was not enough: it was too rosy, mostly about economics, and guaranteed against bipartisanship by airbrushing Labor’s political rivals from the record of regional diplomatic achievement.

We are overdue for a foreign policy document that explains how our diplomacy, development assistance and trade efforts – concentrated now in one department – should be coordinated along with defence and intelligence towards national ends, in a world that has become more connected yet more uncertain and vulnerable.

In that context, it is welcome that Greens have begun to venture views about Australian foreign policy and security, based not only on a claim of moral high ground but also on their own interpretation of the national interest.

The obligation the Greens now have is to level with voters about the tensions and contradictions in their position, as stated by leader Senator Richard Di Natale in his recent speech to the Lowy Institute.

It is not enough, for instance, to reject Australia’s US alliance without explaining why a more self-reliant Australia could then somehow spend less on defence.

Voters deserve to know whether our major parties are interested in anticipating and planning for Australia’s future in a more risk-prone world, or merely rolling with events and electoral opportunity.

Rory Medcalf will be one of the panelists at the latest in our Australian election event series – The Vote: Security and foreign affairs. The event will be held at 6pm on 24 May at Crawford School, The Australian National University. Find out more and register for free here.

This piece was also published in The Daily Telegraph. 

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Medcalf, R. (2016). Securing Australia - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: