Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pivoted following a politically devastating summer period to come out swinging with his address at the National Press Club setting out a new plan to enhance Australia’s national resilience across the public policy spectrum.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War.
Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.
In this era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations, Australia is finding itself at the epicentre of the new global paradigm with unique economic, political and strategic implications for the nation’s national security.
However, traditional nation-state competition is not the only national security challenge, as global and domestic economic headwinds, non-state actors and asymmetric challenges, including transnational criminal organisation and violent extremists, all serve as equal yet disparate challenges within the traditional rubric of national security.
While the dichotomy of “national security” versus “national resilience” as focus points for public policy, political and strategic leaders should be seemingly well understood, the public policy debate and ensuing response fails to deliver results.
Mr Morrison’s latest annual address to the National Press Club, which is often used by prime ministers and oppositions leaders to outline their agenda for the coming year, has sought to embrace the increasingly convoluted and overlapping areas of national security and national resilience in order to respond to the challenges facing Australia.
Responding to all challenges, man-made and natural
In his opening statement, Prime Minister Morrison sought to identify the growing overlap between areas of traditional national security and national resilience.
“Australia is strong, but we must become even stronger.
“We live in a world of increasing global uncertainty, which the current coronavirus outbreak only serves to reinforce, which I have already addressed earlier today, so I won’t be speaking on that topic in great detail today, but if you wish, we can deal with those matters on further questions afterwards.
“Strategic competition, technological change, a recasting of the global economy, pressures on global financial systems and escalating environmental challenges.
“And at home, a growing and ageing population, a stubborn and devastating drought in a vast continent of increasing environmental extremes, an economy that is making the leap to the next phase of our prosperity, and any leap carries risks and challenges and a society where too many Australians take their own lives, symptomatic in so many ways of the pressures and corrosive forces present in so much of modern-day life,” Prime Minister Morrison articulated.
It is clear that given the impact of Australia’s cyclical droughts, monsoonal rains and ravaging bushfires, these natural disasters that would traditionally fall under the national resilience category are equally important factors in maintaining long-term national security objectives.
Equally important factors that traditionally fall under the national security category but would be equally at home in the resilience category are factors like energy, water and resource security, infrastructure and industry development, diversity and economic competitiveness and traditional hard power concepts like defence and intelligence all serve as essential components for a nation’s resilience.
“This year, our government, we will continue to build an even stronger Australia,” the Prime Minister stated.
Streamlining the Commonwealth’s response
In response to a wide-reaching public backlash following the seeming delay in the federal government's response to assist the state and territory governments in their response to the bushfires as they swept across jurisdictional lines, the Prime Minister announced a major rethink in the way the Commonwealth responds and coordinates in the face of such challenges.
“I therefore flag the following as issues to be considered in the wake of these events:
- The legal framework that would allow the Commonwealth to declare a national state of emergency currently doesn’t exist, with clear authorities and appropriate safeguards for Commonwealth action on its own initiative, including the deployment of our Defence forces;
- The legal interface with the states and territories on responsibilities when it comes to preparation for, and response to, natural disasters and emergencies of national scale;
- And an enhancement of a national accountability framework for natural disaster risk management, resilience and preparedness. This should include the setting of targets and transparent reporting on key actions, with enhanced national standards where necessary. We’ve got to be comparing apples with apples, we’ve got to be using the same methodologies.
“An enhanced, and more proactive role for our Defence force in response to domestic natural disasters will have implications for our force structure, for it’s capability, development, its command, its deployment and the training of our Defence forces. So, I don’t put this forward lightly.”
Building national resilience
While the Prime Minister sought to maintain a degree of policy consistency when it comes to the government's response to issues like climate change, disaster response and the like, he did articulate a new response to build true national resilience.
“Building our national resilience means building our ability to resist, absorb, accommodate, recover and transform in the face of such events – and this includes the effects of longer, hotter, drier summers.
“Building dams, developing new crop varieties, improving planning for natural disasters is climate action now.
“I am asking the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by our Chief Scientist who is here today and doing an amazing job, Dr Alan Finkel, to bring forward recommendations to Australian governments, all of us, on the further practical resilience measures, including buildings, public infrastructure, industries such as agriculture, and protecting our natural assets.
“I will be discussing resilience measures with the states and territories at COAG in March, and I know they’re looking forward to that discussion, including to ensure the Commonwealth government’s investment through the National Bushfire Recovery Agency will be in assets that are built to last, built to resist, built to survive longer, hotter, drier summers. Building back better for the future,” the Prime Minister stated.
Is it time for a Minister for National Resilience?
The individual nature of the aforementioned respective strategies, combined with the competing interests of the respective portfolios and departments are further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive, co-ordinating authority managing the direction of the broader national interest and implementation of a resulting strategy.
It is important to recognise that this realisation does diminish the good work done by the respective ministers, assistant ministers and opposition representatives.
But recognising the limitations of siloed approaches to the increasingly holistic nature of national security in the 21st century requires a co-ordinated, cohesive effort to combine all facets of contemporary national security and national resilience policies respectively – into a single, cohesive strategy.
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.
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.
However, as traditional and asymmetric national security challenges continue to unfold throughout the region, and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?