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Mobilisation in a ‘pre-war’ era: Is it time for Australia to begin mobilising the economy?

Much like the decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939 – the writing was on the wall. Today, as has been noted by many experts, we are living in a similar “pre-war” era, where we differ is that the Australian governments of the time began to mobilise the economy. So, has the time come for us to do the same?

Much like the decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939 – the writing was on the wall. Today, as has been noted by many experts, we are living in a similar “pre-war” era, where we differ is that the Australian governments of the time began to mobilise the economy. So, has the time come for us to do the same?

The term mobilisation invites images of lines of soldiers marching off to war, sandbag walls being erected to protect critical buildings, trenches, machine gun nests and barbed wire being constructed along our beaches, and normal, civilian life put on hold for all as the nation prepares for the worst.

For many Australians, the idea of mobilisation is something from a bygone age, divorced from the reality of our new “civilised” world order despite the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its ongoing war of attrition, let alone the horrors of Hamas’ sneak attack on Israel in October 2023.

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The ongoing campaign by and against the Houthis in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa area of operations has only served to further demonstrate the vulnerability of the global order and the proliferation of advanced threats to security, prosperity, and stability.

Everywhere we look, even for those at the edge of awareness of contemporary global affairs and with a limited passing understanding (despite what they may protest) of the historical context and ethno-religious baggage for many of the world’s contemporary security challenges, mobilisation is simmering away.

It is most noticeable with the revolutionary and revisionist powers like Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Islamist Iran and others, seeking to rectify the real or perceived wrongs of the post-Second World War order built and maintained by the United States and its network of global allies.

If all of this sounds familiar, the similarities between today’s epoch of disruption and civilisational challenge has drawn many comparisons to the inter-war years, particularly in light of Russia’s antagonism on the edges of Europe and China’s increasing hostility and aggression towards Taiwan and the broader Indo-Pacific.

This has resulted in many commentators ranging from former prime ministers, think tanks, and media commentators to increasingly characterise our modern environment as a “pre-war” era.

While this may sound hyperbolic and many opponents to stronger Australian pushback against Chinese antagonism, in particular, (including former prime ministers, policy experts and media commentators) would counsel against such a response, mobilisation and activation of the nation appears increasingly necessary.

But what does that look like?

Importantly, we’re not alone

While Australia (true to form) has been and continues to be slow to respond, we are far from alone in responding to the challenges posed by the threat of revisionist world powers.

In the face of continued Russian aggression and the increasing likelihood of a Russian victory in Ukraine, pyrrhic though it might be, Europe is beginning to recognise and accept that it will need to do more to guarantee its own economic, political, and strategic security.

This has resulted in European leaders once again embracing the old Latin saying, sic vis pacem para bellum or “if you want peace, prepare for war”, in order to protect the continent and its regional and global interests from the threat of this cabal of revisionist powers.

Highlighting this, European Council President Charles Michel stated in an opinion piece published across Europe’s major news outlets, “If we do not get the EU’s response right and do not give Ukraine enough support to stop Russia, we are next. We must therefore be defence-ready and shift to a ’war economy’ mode.”

“It’s time to take responsibility for our security. We can no longer count on others or be at the mercy of election cycles in the US or elsewhere.”

Michel added, “If we want peace, we must prepare for war.”

Across the Atlantic, successive US administrations, beginning with Trump and furthered by the Biden administration have sought to reverse the trend of hyper globalisation that saw much of the West’s industrial base and economic complexity hollowed out during the 1990s and early-2000s empowering potential adversaries, namely China.

This has given rise or perhaps re-emergence of “homeland economics” and an emphasis on national sovereignty and resilience across the economy, particularly in light of mounting geopolitical tensions and the spotlight shone by the COVID-19 pandemic and impact on global supply chains dependent upon China and other developing nations.

Callum Williams, in a special report for The Economist, titled, Governments across the world are discovering ‘homeland economics’, stated, “The crucial idea [of homeland economics] is to reduce risks to a country’s economy – those presented by the vagaries of markets, an unpredictable shock such as a pandemic, or the actions of a geopolitical opponent...

“Supporters say this will produce a world that is safer, fairer and greener ... Homeland economics wants to protect the world from similar shocks in the future. It wants to keep the benefits of globalisation, with its emphasis on efficiency and low prices, but avoid the downsides: the uncertainty and unfairness of the previous system. This requires meshing national security and economic policy,” Williams explained further.

This shift has seen the introduction of a range of regulatory and legislative initiatives, like the Biden administration’s “CHIPS Act”, designed to establish the United States as a secondary supply base for the global semiconductor and microprocessor market in the event of a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan.

Under the Trump administration, the creation of “Opportunity Zones” attracted “US$75 billion (AU$114.97 billion) in funds and driven US$52 billion (AU$79.9 billion) of new investment in economically distressed communities, creating at least 500,000 new jobs”, helping to begin rebuilding formerly mighty “Rust Belt” industrial heartlands like Detroit and Cleveland.

Each of these initiatives are representative of a broader dynamic beginning to transform the economies of the Western world, yet Australia, for all the bluster around programs like the National Reconstruction Fund, which is designed to “diversify and transform Australia’s industry and economy”, appears to be missing in action.

We’ve done it once, we can do it again

Economically for Australia, that is an even bigger can of worms given the well-recognised decline of our economic complexity, competitiveness, mounting public and private debt among a myriad of other political, regulatory and legislative handbrakes on economic growth.

This position has been extensively reinforced by Dr Kevin You, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, who explained, “On energy, again Australia used to be a powerhouse, boasting among the lowest electricity prices in the world. Now we are ranked 52nd, the result of a failing transition to net zero emissions. On tax and red tape, Australian policymakers are engaging in economic self-harm. We are one of the highest taxed people in the developed world.

“On corporate tax and personal income tax we are ranked 56th and 57th of 64. And on the key metric of ‘bureaucracy not hindering economic activity’, Australia has plunged 14 places since our peak in 2004. This means there are more bureaucrats, permits, forms and red tape getting in the way of businesses which want to invest and employ Australians in secure jobs,” You explained.

Many Australians, young Australians in particular, would be forgiven for thinking that Australia doesn’t have “the right stuff” or it is “all a little too hard” for Australia to compete and this is readily reinforced by economists who, at best, are naive and lazy when it comes to economic reform or are complicit in our “managed decline”.

However, we have faced this predicament before, with similar geostrategic and geopolitical challenges providing an incentive and urgency for the nation’s policymakers and public.

While much of the allies’ industrial strength came from the United States during the Second World War, prior to their entry in 1941, Australia was the undisputed industrial power of the allied nations in the Indo-Pacific.

This only became more important following the collapse of British power in the East, following the Fall of Singapore in 1942 which left Australia incredibly vulnerable in the face of a rampaging and seemingly unstoppable Japanese advance through Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Luckily enough, by 1939, Australia had completed its period of industrialisation, which began in 1919 and kicked into overdrive during the impact of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Collapse in 1929 and the ensuing economic turmoil which swept the globe.

Highlighting this, the author of Armed and ready: The industrial development and defence of Australia, 1900–1945, Andrew Ross, stated, “Australia had just completed its industrialisation in 1939. From 1919, Australian governments had fought off the determined efforts of the great economic powers to prevent that happening. But by combining with industrial companies such as BHP, and Collins House, and using its own technical organisations such as the Munitions Supply Board of the Department of Defence, Australia created the key industries required.”

Unpacking this further and the importance of mobilisation in the “pre-war” era, Ross added, “By December 1941, the nation had been in a full war economy for 18 months, and by March 1942 had created enough armaments to fully equip six infantry divisions ... Australian scientists, technocrats and industrialists had created so much equipment that Japan could not supply the volumes of its own materiel to overcome it.”

Importantly and worth acknowledging and understanding, Australia proved to be an immense economic and industrial power pivotal to the victory in the Pacific, thanks to the “pre-war” era period of mobilisation.

Recognising this, Ross said, “Australia’s war economy also provided vast amounts of clothing to hundreds of thousands of American service personnel in the Southwest Pacific. Huge quantities of basic materials for road and base building, as well as armaments, transport and signal equipment, were also supplied. In 1943, Australia supplied 95 per cent of the food for 1,000,000 American servicemen.

“In commenting on this wartime support, President Harry Truman wrote in his 1946 report to the US Congress on the Lend-Lease Act, ‘On balance, the contribution made by Australia, a country having a population of about seven millions, approximately equalled that of the United States’,” Ross explained.

What is the worst that happens? Victory jobs?

As stated by US President Truman, this is a truly phenomenal outcome for a nation less than five decades old, so imagine what we could do now.

Developing the industrial base needed to prepare Australia for the potentiality of conflict needs to be viewed beyond the myopic lens of preparing for “war” or being “war mongering” as is often thrown around by naive Australians oblivious to the uncomfortable reality of our “pre-war” world.

What re-industrialisation does provide for Australia is an enhanced sense of sovereignty, economic resilience, and confidence for both the nation’s leaders and people that we are harder to coerce and manipulate in the event of open conflict or a rapid escalation in “hybrid warfare”.

Equally, the economic outcomes provide Australians with a greater sense of independence, prosperity, and security at a time of increased insecurity across the Western world and will allow us to capitalise on the economic emergence of the Indo-Pacific, allowing us to become the masters of our own destiny at home and abroad.

In the event of conflict, we have gotten in early to ensure that Australia is capable of securing its own interests and ensuring that Australia’s armed forces are capable of operating with assurance that they are equipped with the materiel needed to fight and win.

And, in the event that war doesn’t happen, we have a competitive, resilient, and secure industrial base from which to build future generations of wealth, prosperity and stability – it sounds like a win-win to me.

Or should I say, “Victory jobs” all round?

Final thoughts

As Australia and the Western world faces this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is part of a broader uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with our people.

Our adversaries have already shown that economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to military power in this new world, accordingly, we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, 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.

Succeeding in this new era of hybrid warfare also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve.

Embracing this approach will need to entice the Australian public, especially young Australians who increasingly feel like they have been left behind to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

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..

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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