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Sorry Hewson, you’re wrong: The ADF’s primary role is to defend the nation, not disaster response

Sorry Hewson, you’re wrong: The ADF’s primary role is to defend the nation, not disaster response
HMAS Adelaide off the coast of Eden, NSW as a part of Operation Bushfire Assist (Source Dept of Defence)

Former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson has issued a rallying cry to see the ADF mobilised to address the nation’s “greatest security threat”, climate change, citing a number of reasons for repurposing the ADF – revealing a startlingly narrow view of the ADFs role in securing Australias place in the Indo-Pacific.

Former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson has issued a rallying cry to see the ADF mobilised to address the nation’s “greatest security threat”, climate change, citing a number of reasons for repurposing the ADF – revealing a startlingly narrow view of the ADFs role in securing Australias place in the Indo-Pacific.

We can all agree that Australia's current bushfire crisis is a tragedy for the communities afflicted and the local ecosystems damaged by the fires, which have served as a critical part of the continent's environmental cycle since time immemorial. 

Both sides of the political spectrum have sought, albeit in a thinly veiled way, to politicise the ongoing bushfires and the drought, with protests in major cities drawing tens of thousands of people, through to often heated exchanges during television interviews or cringe worthy visits by national and state leaders to the disaster ravaged communities. 


This is not about debating the merits of climate science and the myriad approaches the respective parties, each seeking to further one point of view or another or the 'solutions' associated with each – it is not an area of expertise for this publication, the author and nor is it a forum for pontificating. 

It is, however, to respond to the ludicrous claims made by former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson, demanding the mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force to respond to the 'climate crisis' in a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald titled, 'Our greatest security threat is climate change, so mobilise the ADF'.  

Hewson launches into a scathing piece, superfluously stating: "Life is about and defined by choices – how we make them, what we decide, and how we live with the consequences. Governments have a particular responsibility as we rely on them to make choices on our behalf, especially the bigger national choices that we feel somewhat powerless to make or influence, while they use our money to fund them." 

Operation Bushfire Assist and Defence's response 

It is important to identify that despite the title of his opinion piece, both the regular Australian Defence Force and Reserve units have been mobilised to assist with disaster relief, air lift, evacuation and related support services to assist the myriad state emergency services and communities impacted by the fires. 

Indeed, Defence states: "The bushfire crisis is the Australian Defence Force’s main effort. More than 6,000 full-time and reserve personnel are providing direct support in the field, at sea, in the air and from Defence bases across fire-affected regions.

"Around 3,000 reservists are supporting Operation Bushfire Assist. ADF personnel have been working with state and territory authorities since September 2019 to respond to Australia’s bushfire crisis. This support will continue for as long as needed."

Your first hint that the Australian Defence Force's primary role is to defend the nation is in its name, it is not the Australian Disaster Relief Support Force.

So it would seem that Mr Hewson's request has already been fulfilled. However, as he clearly articulates, the Australian Defence Force should take on a greater role in disaster relief and recovery: "Surely climate change is our major national security issue, out-ranking the risk of invasion, terrorism and regional insecurity. The role of our defence forces should be broadened to include specific national disaster responsibilities, to be expeditiously mobilised amid fire crises, and then for recovery."

Government policy inconsistency a major fault, but so are expensive defence projects

Building on this, Hewson does make a number of valid points regarding the response and preparedness of respective state, territory and Commonwealth governments regarding such challenges, stating:

"Sadly, the drift has occurred over several governments, so only tends to be recognised as it becomes a crisis. This is certainly the case with both current national disasters, the drought and the bushfires. Our governments were poorly prepared for both, and are struggling to respond," he wrote.

"Both major parties, over the past couple of decades, played short-term political games with climate change rather than address its magnitude and urgency. We are left in the unimaginable position of still having no climate action plan, no energy policy, no national disaster plan, no waste-management policy, no fuel security strategy, and no transition strategies to achieve a low-carbon society by mid-century," Hewson states doubling down in his scathing attack.

Hewson is correct in identifying these individual policy factors, all of which should figure in the long-term planning for any government. Now, where does the Australian Defence Force figure into his calculations? 

Mr Hewson is quick to launch into a pointed attack upon defence spending, and rightfully so, as he states, "There is a lot of fat in defence spending."

Indeed we have seen that in recent months as concerns continue to grow about the viability, delivery time frame and costs associated with the multibillion-dollar Future Submarine Program, something Hewson articulates:

"We spend almost $40 billion a year on defence, and have made staggering forward commitments for subs, frigates and fighters with acquisition costs approaching $200 billion. I am reliably advised that, with total 'through-life costs' (including acquisition), that could approach three quarters of a trillion dollars.

"Moreover, there are basic questions such as why we are building inferior French-designed subs instead of leasing from the US; or why have we made ourselves more of a target for terrorists and the likes of Iran by having joined wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the US armada in the Straits of Hormuz; or why would we contemplate an additional 'national guard' to handle disasters."

Essentially, Hewson advocates for better management of defence spending, something many will agree with, particularly given cost over runs, however, transforming the Australian Defence Force into the Australian Climate Force is counterproductive and hinders national security. 

Defending against all foes, foreign and domestic

However, Hewson forgets or glosses over the fact that as stated by the Department of Defence, "The primary role of Defence is to defend Australia against armed attack."

That would seemingly preclude the ADF from responding to natural disasters, which we know it doesn't as the ADF has been frequently called upon to do so since its formation and as is clearly stated in the Defence Act 1903: "Under a Commonwealth interests order, the Defence Force is called out to protect Commonwealth interests in Australia or the Australian offshore area.

"The order might apply in a state or territory, or in the Australian offshore area, or in more than one of those places. Each state or self‑governing territory in which domestic violence is occurring, or is likely to occur, must generally be consulted before the Governor‑General makes a Commonwealth interests order."

However, Hewson's demands fail to take into account the changing geo-political, economic and strategic reality of the Indo-Pacific and the increasing role the ADF will be required to play in the region to guarantee national sovereignty, integrity and the regional stability Australia is dependent upon. 

As with many of his ilk, Hewson seems to be advocating for a further Australian military retreat from the Indo-Pacific, seeking a form of isolationism, questioning the validity of high-end military capabilities, like the multibillion-dollar Joint Strike Fighter, Hunter and Attack Class programs and the Army's respective modernisation programs when the ADF could be better utilised to respond to the drought, bushfires and other natural disasters. 

He also seems to question the validity of standing up of a separate 'national guard' like organisation that could be utilised specifically to address these challenges, leaving Defence to focus on its core mission: "defend Australia against armed attack".

Co-ordinating the national response

Hewson's central thesis, whether he meant for it to be so, is however accurate. Australia needs a co-ordinated and national response to the challenges it is going to face in the era of global economic, political, strategic and environmental disruption and, concerningly, increasing great power competition. 

This is articulated by NSW senator Jim Molan, who has long been an advocate for a holistic approach to national security in the form of a national security strategy promoting national resilience as a core principle.

"Most Australians can be forgiven for believing that successive Defence white papers, in conjunction with Foreign Affairs white papers and reviews into energy, including liquid fuels, water and food security, constitute a true national security strategy, unfortunately, without the guidance of an overarching national security strategy, we get lost in the sub-strategies," Senator Molan explained to Defence Connect in late 2019. 

By its very nature, national security strategy and policy is an all encompassing area of public policy – indeed every facet of contemporary public policy is crucial to supporting the broader national security debate.

From seemingly banal aspects of social security and health policy, through to infrastructure development, water security and agriculture policy and of course environmental rehabilitation, management and climate change, each element of public policy is intimately enmeshed as part of the broader national security conversation.

Your thoughts

Australia's position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation's ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.

Despite the nation's virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict or lack, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.  

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

So, I'm sorry, Mr Hewson, but as much as you're right, your assessment is equally wrong and driven by dogma, thus missing the opportunity to propel the nation forward. 

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