Rising great power competition, mounting national debt, automation, economic instability and climate change are all serving to undermine the traditional approach to policy making, national security and resilience – Australia is not isolated in this era of disruption and responding to it effectively requires some disruptive thoughts of our own.
The first and foremost responsibility of any government is the long-term security and stability of the nation and its populace. Now more than ever, governments around the world are facing an increasing combination of economic, political, social, environmental and traditional national security and resilience challenges.
Indeed, national security in the contemporary context is best defined by US academic Charles Maier: "National security ... is best described as a capacity to control those domestic and foreign conditions that the public opinion of a given community believes necessary to enjoy its own self-determination or autonomy, prosperity and wellbeing."
Australia is not exempt from this perfect storm of challenges, as the rising period of great power competition, economic and industrial transformation with the advent of Industry 4.0, social unrest as a result of rising inequality and the ever present public concerns about climate change are serving to challenge policy makers.
While Australia has enjoyed a well documented, record-setting three decades of uninterrupted economic growth buoyed by the voracious appetite of a growing China and to a lesser extent the broader Indo-Pacific Asia.
Responding to these disruptive factors presents equal part opportunity, equal part challenge – but since when has Australia ever shirked from a challenge? Particularly when the the opportunities could ensure the economic, strategic and political stability of the nation for future generations and well into the 21st century.
Nevertheless, Australia's long history of balancing the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence presents further challenges for policy makers to consider when responding to these disruptive challenges, particularly when viewed within the confines of Australia's relationship with the Indo-Pacific.
Recognising this, is it time to ask a series of difficult, yet pointed questions of Australia's leaders to inform the decision making process and the nation's response to an age of disruption?
The infrastructure question
It is well documented that the nation is currently facing a critical infrastructure back log, with the nation's major cities clogged and bogged down by congestion on major transport corridors.
Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe recently pleaded with the Commonwealth government to lift infrastructure spending to address the G20 identified $230 billion shortfall, while also putting downward pressure on unemployment and stimulating broader economic growth and development.
The G20 in particular found that while Australia's road infrastructure investment was adequate, the nation faced significant shortfall in major investment in ports and railways – this was further reinforced by former RBA governor Bernie Fraser, who stressed the importance of extra infrastructure expenditure to support the government's agenda to deal with the growing strain on the economy.
Despite this international recognition, the focus on transport infrastructure neglects other areas of critical infrastructure, which could provide long-term economic and environmental benefits for the nation, namely large-scale water security infrastructure projects.
So, does this $230 billion shortfall as identified by the G20 identify the other critical infrastructure Australia needs if it is to be a globally competitive and resilient nation in the 21st century?
Namely, energy and water security infrastructure – both of which provide extensive value adding for the national economy across a range of sectors ranging from advanced and heavy manufacturing, through to agriculture and placing downward pressure on cost of living for Australians.
Industry 4.0 and the industry development question
Advanced manufacturing, including the internet of things, additive manufacturing and automation, is serving to reshape the industrial capacity of many once great manufacturing nations.
For countries like Australia, Industry 4.0 is serving as the opportunity to reindustrialise to support continued growth and competitiveness, while providing opportunities to enhance broader national security.
As typically innovative industries, both aerospace and defence have moved quickly to adopt the revolutionary technologies of 'Industry 4.0' – the name given to the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies.
Industry 4.0 includes cyber-physical systems, the internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing, and is commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.
Despite Australia's widely recognised position as providing a world-leading research and development capacity – supported by both private and public sector research and development programs driven by organisations like the CSIRO – traditional areas of high wage costs and low productivity in Australia's manufacturing industry hinder the development of a competitive industry.
Nevertheless, Industry 4.0 – the combination of additive manufacturing, automated manufacturing and data sharing, with a coherent National Strategic Industry development policy can compensate and in some cases overcome the traditional hindrances faced by the Australian economy.
Further supporting this development, public-private collaboration is essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability and success of Australia's defence industrial base and broader manufacturing economy.
The fourth industrial revolution and Australia's role as a global R&D powerhouse raises the question: is the Australian government taking the necessary steps to nurture the development of a globally competitive advanced manufacturing base, leveraging the existing world-leading capabilities?
Energy security, national reserves and climate change
Growing concern about Australia’s lack of strategic resource reserves – mainly liquid energy supplies – is emerging as a major issue to be faced by the new government and Australia’s strategic policy leaders as the world becomes increasingly unpredictable.
Further exacerbating these rapidly evolving national security and economic issues is growing public and government concern about climate change and humanity's impact on the environment.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed the stirrings of a global movement committed to shifting the developed world's energy consumption and power production towards a sustainable, green solution without jeopardising economic growth and sustainability.
This focus on 'zero-carbon' energy production and the corresponding concerns about Australia's energy security has figured strongly within the ongoing planning for the Australian Defence Force, with Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC, placing increased importance on climate change and energy security and its corresponding impact on the capability of the ADF.
Professor Emma Aisbett and Professor Mark Howden of the Australian National University (ANU) as part of the ANU's Grand Challenge for Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific have highlighted the growing focus of the economic, political and strategic policy communities, with the Asia-Pacific region recognised as playing a pivotal role in Australia's transition towards a clean energy economy and position as an energy superpower.
While Australia enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, the ability to refine and produce vast quantities of steel, coking coal and now domestic agricultural produce and critical, specialised medical supplies also serves as a glaring gap in the broader national security debate.
The nation's unrivalled solar, wind and nuclear energy reserves, combined with advances in hydrogen technology and battery technologies, position the nation well within the next great energy race.
Accordingly, any national energy policy requires a holistic approach to incorporate these into the development of any policy response – raising an important question, are all of the avenues for developing a truly robust, resilient energy sector being considered for Australia?
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.