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Defence of Australia: An isolationist fantasy, old and tired dream we struggle to wake from

HMAS Brisbane sails through a big swell in the Philippine Sea during ANNUALEX 2023 (Source: Dept of Defence)

For much of our modern history, Australia’s strategic posture has been based on what has been formalised as “Defence of Australia” doctrine and a relatively peaceful slumber abrogating the heavy lifting to others. Now, waking from the slumber is of paramount importance.

For much of our modern history, Australia’s strategic posture has been based on what has been formalised as “Defence of Australia” doctrine and a relatively peaceful slumber abrogating the heavy lifting to others. Now, waking from the slumber is of paramount importance.

If you ask many Australians, the “Defence of Australia” is the paramount responsibility of the Australian government, as a concept, however, it’s a little more convoluted.

Equally, if you ask many Australians, defending mainland Australia is a no brainer, as is defending Australia’s economic interests in both the Indo-Pacific and more broadly, on the global stage.


Where we start to run aground is just where the Venn diagram of defending mainland Australia and our regional and global economic interests overlap – particularly against the backdrop of an increasingly multipolar and divided world characterised by competition between great and emerging powers.

For former prime minister Paul Keating and strategic policy experts like Hugh White, and seemingly still, Australia’s defence apparatus, the “Defence of Australia” seemingly begins and ends with our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), beyond which we largely abrogate responsibility for the security of our interests to “great and powerful friends”.

Now yes, the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) called for a shift in our defence posture, shifting the focus from defending the continent from invasion towards a “strategy of denial”, led by long-range fires and our future fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to “control” and “deter” hostilities toward critical maritime corridors through Southeast Asia, mainly the Straits of Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda, respectively.

This is expanded upon in the Defence Strategic Review, which stated, “The Indo-Pacific is the most important geostrategic region in the world ... For military planning, in terms of our strategic geography, the primary area of military interest for Australia’s national defence is the immediate region encompassing the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia into the Pacific. This region includes our northern approaches.”

Beyond this defined area, Australia effectively defers to the benevolence and will of “our great and powerful friends” and the enduring benevolence of potential adversaries with broad ambitions for the post-Second World War order, something that continues to come apart at the seams.

Back to the future

For historian Alex McDermott and former foreign minister Alexander Downer, both writing for The Australian Financial Review, waking from our “long holiday from history” and naive slumber is now of paramount importance.

Beginning with McDermott to set the scene, he stated, “Keating’s proposals for how to protect the nation are a throwback to the 1930s isolationism that Labor’s wartime leader championed. Were Keating still running the show, our alliance with the United States would be downgraded and the AUKUS nuclear submarine program scrapped, with Australia instead being defended by doubling the number of Collins Class conventional submarines...”

Going further, McDermott added, “When Curtin took over the Labor Party in 1935, the civilised world was menaced by totalitarian regimes from all sides, and lurching rapidly towards the abyss. the ALP remained the same electoral basket case it had mostly been since its opposition to sending Australian conscripts to fight in Europe during World War I destroyed its credibility on national defence.

“He [Curtin] developed a defence policy that advocated a system of home defence as narrowly defined as it was possible to imagine: an air force and some submarines strictly confined to protecting the coastline. Beyond the continental shelf was other people’s business,” McDermott explained.

Adding further colour to the image is former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who said, “The present Labor government has also put aside two absurd features of the Keating era: a defence policy designed solely to deal with direct invasion of Australia and the diminution of Australia’s traditional alliances, particularly with the United States.”

Now I will disagree in part with the comments of Downer, particularly his statement around the DSR putting aside plans to defend Australia from direct invasion, which to be fair, it does.

However, even in its broadest conceptualisation, the policy and posture championed under the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review fails to shift the nation’s capability development and strategic doctrine beyond “dominating” the “sea-air gap” championed in the 1987 Defence white paper, titled, The Defence of Australia.

Indeed, this is reinforced by the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, who detailed this continuation of the “Defence of Australia” posture, albeit giving it shiny new names like “Impactful Projection”, which he explained as, “I think, increasingly we’re going to need to think about our Defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we’ve probably had before.”

But none of this really moves the dial.

Hiding behind a ‘great and powerful friend’ v ‘serious and lethal capabilities’

This “novel” approach presented by the government and defended by former prime minister Keating builds on the approach taken by the Curtin government during the Second World War, as explained by McDermott who stated, “to the end Curtin remained strategically insular, verging on myopic, unwilling to grasp the global strategy demands that the US and UK were grappling with to win a world war.

“His preference was to crouch all Australian forces behind an American security umbrella, and refuse or avoid genuine engagement in the real battle theatres – eerily reminiscent of Albanese’s recent refusal to send tangible support to the Red Sea, which the government has tried to justify by saying we have to look after our own neighbourhood instead,” McDermott added.

Dower expanded on this criticism, stating, “While Keating has always had a clear understanding of power within Australia, he’s never seemed to grasp international power politics. His, and Labor’s, traditional approach to defence strategy is the defence of Australia. Of course but what they fail to understand is that Australia’s security will only be threatened if regional order and security breaks down.”

Yet Australia continues to hide behind our “great and powerful friend/s” and the doctrine of “impactful projection” that advocates lobbing missiles and other ordnance over the horizon, regional presence deployments and our future nuclear-powered submarine fleet with little in the way of actual doctrine and real capability to shape our environment and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Downer added colour to this, saying, “In this region, we need to be making a significant contribution to the regional power balance and the alliance. That means having serious and lethal defence capabilities. Just having a navy which might stop incursions into Australian territory is not enough. We need to have a defence force which can not only deter attacks on Australia but can also operate effectively throughout our region, and occasionally where necessary beyond.”

Developing these “serious and lethal defence capabilities” is now of paramount importance and doing so in a way that doesn’t leave one branch lopsided; sorry to burst the bubbles of the “Focused Force” fans.

In light of this, it is becoming clear that Australia is going to require a “Balanced Force”, not a “Focused Force”, as championed by the Defence Strategic Review, and this “Balanced Force” will need to deliver capabilities we traditionally depend on “our great and powerful friend/s” for. If only we had a model for doing this?

*cough* Forward Defence *cough*.

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to the success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Articulating this to the Australian public, bringing them on the journey, and helping them to understand that Australia’s interests, particularly our economic interests extend far beyond our myopic view of the Indo-Pacific and are indeed global in scope.

That isn’t to advocate for the creation of a global Australian military, but rather calls for an acceptance by policymakers and the Australian public that we need to be directly responsible and invested in our interests and defend them accordingly.

This will also require an expansion of Australia’s economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, this should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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