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Embracing a Shawshank approach to defence policy? Stranger things have been suggested

Australian Army soldiers from 2nd Commando Regiment conduct clearance of a train during counter-terrorism training at the Special Forces Training Facility at Holsworthy Barracks (Source: Defence)

The walls are closing in, the yard is full of potentially violent thugs and one in particular has his eyes set firmly on us, so how can embracing a “prison-like” approach to our defence planning keep us safe?

The walls are closing in, the yard is full of potentially violent thugs and one in particular has his eyes set firmly on us, so how can embracing a “prison-like” approach to our defence planning keep us safe?

No doubt everyone has seen a prison movie or television series, where a mild-mannered, middle-class man is sent to prison only to be exposed to the most depraved, sadistic and often savage parts of the human psyche.

Throughout the individual’s experience of “institutionalised life”, they find that they are woefully unprepared to face a world where might makes right. The value and sanctity of the individual is non-existent and all semblance of civilisation’s defining “rules-based order” quickly goes out the barred windows.


In many ways, the global “rules-based order” upon which the wealth, stability, and security of the world has been built upon since the end of the Second World War has provided a comforting blanket from the harsh reality of life, “institutionalising” us into a certain way of thinking while leaving us woefully unprepared for the harsh reality of life in the yard.

This, no doubt, seems like an odd comparison to make, particularly in the civilised society that is everyday life in Australia, but that is precisely the reason behind making it.

I’m not the only one to recognise this, with The Australian’s Chris Uhlmann penning similar thoughts in a piece titled Think of China as an aggressive fellow prisoner and plan defence strategy accordingly, in which he states, “Australia’s defence posture is disturbingly reminiscent of my readiness to be a security guard in Sydney’s west in the mid-1980s. In short, the nation is as unprepared for conflict as I was when wandering through shopping centres with a handgun strapped to my belt.

He goes further, saying, “I had not chosen security as a profession. Like Australia’s strategic dilemma, it was a time delivered by unhappy circumstance. My first choice – spending three years in a Catholic seminary – had, remarkably, not equipped me for getting a job in the real world during a recession.”

Don’t get hit and never fight naked

In many ways, Australia, like its “like-minded” partners across the globe and those particularly in the Indo-Pacific, has been guilty of letting their adversary – namely the revisionist power that the People’s Republic of China has increasingly become in the last two decades – dominate the economic, political, and strategic battlespace for far too long.

Rather, Australia, in particular, ensconced in an erroneous belief that we were living in the heady days of what have become known as the “End of History” in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, seemed to skip along collectively in a peaceful, hubristic daze completely oblivious to the rapidly brewing storm clouds on the horizon.

Now yes, arguably, as far back as the Force 2030: Defence White Paper 2009 recognised and articulated the trends transforming the region and the People’s Republic of China in particular, Australian society and, for a large part, the political decisionmakers dragged their feet leaving us woefully unprepared.

Uhlmann expanded on the level of exposure Australia currently faces, drawing on his experience as a security guard saying, “The [training] course included a half day’s training in unarmed combat run by a former soldier and amateur boxer. His advice on how to win a fight seemed sensible. ‘Don’t get hit,’ the boxer said. This is easier if you have the reflexes of Muhammad Ali but the basic concept is sound...

“The Screw was a man of few words but he must have grown to like me a bit because one night, for no apparent reason, he proffered some life advice. ‘Never fight naked,’ he warned. I was touched. He had reached into the dark mine of his experience and produced a nugget. I tried not to imagine how he might have found himself fighting naked, in prison, but thanked him for the sage counsel...

“Let’s apply The Screw’s rule to something big, like defending Australia,” he stated.

This important context echoes the unprepared state that the Australian public finds itself in, outside of those actively interested in geopolitics, history, defence, national security, work in the defence industry or serve in the Australian Defence Force.

This could end badly

And look, let’s be reasonable, for most people just going about their life, the deterioration of the global order is hardly a pressing issue in the face of mounting cost of living, getting the kids dressed, fed and to school all while juggling work.

This is fair enough and we can hardly be surprised given the hubris which has dominated Australian thinking since the end of the Cold War, which is often further compounded by the reality that few Australians have any connection to a “lived reality” of the world before the US-led world order.

Uhlmann stated, “The government says we are in the most dangerous strategic circumstances since World War II. China is arming at warp speed and poses threats in the real and virtual world. It’s already waging a grey war with its economy, its military, its fishing fleet, its criminal drug-running syndicates, its cyber warriors and a foreign legion of volunteer useful idiots.”

Yet seemingly, Australians haven’t heeded the repeated message and perhaps our leaders are exasperated by the lack of buy-in from the average Australian punter, simply throwing their hands up in the air with an attitude of “if they don’t care, why should we?”

Uhlmann stated, “The never-fight-naked-rule means tooling up. Fast. Sure, plan for the next decade, but find a broken bottle to fight with now. Instead, we are the pantomime hero staring dumbly into the theatre as the audience screams, ’He’s behind you!’”

Perhaps this lack of domestic investment is as a result of policymakers communicating it in a way that doesn’t click with the average Aussie, Uhlmann has a solution for this messaging, “Let’s boil the geopolitics down a bit. Australia is nude, lathered up in the shower and has dropped the soap. A curious Comanchero lifer has appeared at the open door. This could end badly.”

Final thoughts

While the old saying of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” largely holds true, the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment means that the time for well-prepared massage statements is increasingly over, rather we need to meet the Australian public at their level.

This may require a “shock” to the collective Australian psyche, to shake Australians out of the complacency we continue to wallow in, but it can’t be done without a solution, nor can the cure be worse than the disease.

Rather, this is an opportunity for Australia’s policymakers to present a clear, coherent and concise plan for the nation’s future over the next three, six, nine, and 12years, enabling us to prepare for the short and long-term challenges and opportunities we face as a 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 to 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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