Government and governance, International relations, Law, National security, Social policy | Australia

16 March 2015

Putting the right policies and priorities in place to tackle Australia’s expanding horizon of national security risks.

Why think about Australian national security? Why, in particular, should we think about it anew?

Today’s and tomorrow’s Australia faces an era of change, uncertainty and fragility. Our horizon of risk is expanding, as our connections with the world increase, including in terms of energy, resources, people, money and knowledge. The world’s centre of economic and strategic gravity is moving to our region of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Australia’s interests are large and growing yet our capabilities are not keeping pace. So there is a premium on partnerships to guard our interests in an uncertain world. Yet to have the best chance of building and maintaining the partnerships we need, we must also have the credibility that comes with doing our best to provide our own security.

The key question, then, is are we really doing our best? It can be argued that Australia continues to fall short of its potential as an effective security actor.

We are still in transition from the Australia of the past few decades: a country that has relied for its security primarily on the combination of a stable global and regional environment and a less demanding US ally.

Now the strategic environment is less stable and the ally more demanding, yet frustratingly less than clear about its own strategy or priorities.

 Added to that, our own ability to set security priorities is being dispersed by worsening dangers of terror and radicalisation at home and worldwide.

Of course, a national security statement focused exclusively on terrorism is a misnomer. It is obviously incomplete.

Amid entirely justified present-day fears, we must not lose sight of truly strategic risks associated with China’s rise and the Indo-Pacific power balance.

But how to set priorities? For instance: how to prioritise the immediate security threat of terrorism, the wider strategic problem of the changing Indo-Pacific Asian order, and dealing with longer-term trends like the security repercussions of environmental pressures?

The simple answer is that we need a layered response that deals with each problem on its own time-scale. Nor should we imagine that all these risks exist in parallel worlds. They interact in ways we are just starting to understand. A common thread is the way in which they threaten order.

In acquiring our own new security capabilities, we need to be constantly looking for flexibility and adaptability.

Like it or not, devoting substantial resources to national security, broadly-defined, will need to be an accepted part of the Australian policy landscape for as far ahead as we can see.

In all, this is hardly a context in which we can afford our national security debate to become any further politicised. A country of our limited capacities cannot afford to be complacent about consensus.

The good news is that we have a reasonably good recent history of bipartisanship on key security issues, including the US alliance.  Yet there is also a hidden fragility, a potential fragmentation of public opinion and political views, across much of the national security, defence and foreign policy agenda – for instance on the best ways to respond to terrorism.

How cohesive or resilient is Australia on matters of security, really? What do young Australians think about these issues?

In a nation where now more than one in four of us was born overseas, more Australians from more places – including East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East – will mean a much more complex mosaic of views about security issues than Australian Governments have needed to relate to in the past.

This will make national consensus-building on security harder. It will also make it more necessary. What we cannot afford is any further politicisation of the national security debate – by any side.

Of course, politics is not the only part of the national security house we need to get in order. Australia can ill-afford for national security to be the narrow interest of a professional security caste which, confident in the knowledge that it is striving for the national interest, just expects the rest of the country to let it get on with the job.

The national security community needs to accept that intensive, sophisticated public consultation and outreach will be a constant requirement and a priority for policymaking.

We have to work much harder to ensure that the security debate in Canberra is recognisable to the wider population – and is recognisably in their interests.

That is a necessary and achievable task, because, like it or not, national security really is becoming everyone’s problem. That is why it must now be a national priority to ensure that no part of the community feels like it is being treated as the problem.

For instance, to quote former ASIO director-general David Irvine, we should not be critical of a whole community, Muslim Australians, based on the actions of a tiny minority of misguided individuals.

The need to ensure that national security policy is owned right across Australian society is also why the Government is correct to seek to connect citizenship with responsibility as well as with rights.

There are many in the community who seem to think that national security is not their problem, or indeed who think that national security policy is the problem. Those who sincerely hold such views need to be willing to suspend preconceptions or posturing, and engage in a first-principles conversation.

 This would be an open-minded conversation about how best to preserve the security and cohesion of the society that has offered levels of political freedom, personal opportunity and physical safety that most of humanity has never experienced.

One way to get the national security conversation on a more fruitful path is to recognise that Australia’s security problem requires multiple responses over multiple time-scales.

 On terrorism, there’s little question that counter-radicalisation and showing the emptiness of the Islamic State narrative are essential tasks. But even the best efforts on these fronts will take time and trust-building.

In the meantime, it is imperative not only to minimise the number of Australians attracted to the terrorist cause – at home or overseas – but to minimise the harm they can do.

Right now the most pressing national security priority must be to prevent further atrocities of a kind that would damage social harmony in a multicultural Australia.

The question then becomes how to maximise the security community’s chance of success in preventing terrorist violence, without poisoning the nation’s medium and longer-term capacity to erode the appeal of terrorist propaganda. It is not a choice. Both are priorities.

Thus it is incumbent on the critics of counter-terrorism measures to offer their best ideas on how to reduce the chances of further terror attacks – or alternately to acknowledge a willingness to risk those attacks and their potentially dreadful impact on Australia’s core qualities of social tolerance and trust.

A new and inclusive Australian security approach must extend to other risks as well. It will involve a recognition that we need to face multiple challenges at once, some that can be met or deterred or limited by principally military means, others that cannot.

Ultimately, a new and inclusive approach to Australian security requires that as a nation we step up our efforts to engage and employ all the qualities we have – advanced technology, strategic geography, a strong ally, promising partners, a private sector increasingly conscious of security, an educated population and exceptional cultural diversity.

Thus the fact that the Australian Defence Force and other policy and security agencies are lifting their game in ethnic and gender diversity is good, but not good enough.

To match the new shape and potential of Australia’s dynamic society, patterns of recruitment and employment in the security community need fresh attention.

Cyber capabilities, for instance, could well be a natural fit for a new kind of reservist. A national cyber security reserve, involving creative work arrangements and flexible exchanges with private industry, would transform traditional notions of what soldiering is about, and what new generations with new skills can do for their country.

Just as Australia’s political and social history has been about increasing inclusion, so too is inclusiveness the essential quality of a new Australian security.

This is an extract of a major speech, Towards a New Australian Security, delivered by Professor Medcalf on 16 March 2016. Read the full speech here, or download as a PDF.

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