With increasingly blurry lines between what constitutes traditional “national security” and “national resilience”, the conversation seems to be missing a key factor: that national security is the outcome of being a resilient, competitive nation – something our leaders desperately need to communicate to the Australian public.
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.
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.
The increasing vulnerability and shortfalls of Australia’s infrastructure networks, broad sectors of the national economy, environment and the population as a whole all serve as visible challenges to the nation’s resilience and capacity to withstand not only increasing global and regional competition, but equally thrive in an age of disruption.
National resilience, as opposed to national security, takes on a more diverse array of challenges for national political and strategic leaders to accommodate, directly impacting the future stability and viability of nations and populations.
Accordingly, the subject of national resilience has traditionally focused on the impact of natural disasters and similar national emergencies and the capacity of a nation to survive and thrive post-disaster.
Australia has recognised this factor and formed the National Resilience Taskforce in April 2018 under the former minister for law enforcement and cyber security, now Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, with the focus on: “National direction needed to underline climate and disaster risk and improve national resilience across all sectors in Australia.”
This taskforce identified key drivers impacting the nation’s resilience, including:
- Natural hazards are more frequent and intense;
- Essential services are interconnected and interdependent;
- People and assets are more exposed and vulnerable;
- Disaster impacts are long-term and complex;
- The costs of disasters are growing; and
- The momentum to address the financial impacts of a changing climate is building.
While recognising the overlapping areas of national security and national resilience are critically important, for Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn AO, while this overlap is critical, national resilience is a key factor in establishing and maintaining national security in an era of traditional and non-traditional security challenges.
Speaking exclusively to Defence Connect: Insights, Blackburn sought to break down the public perceptions around national security versus national resilience, breaking down the siloed thinking about the two subjects, which are intrinsically linked, and the need for a greater conversation with the Australian public.
Accepting the overlapping challenges
Australia’s geographic position and the continent itself present Australian policymakers with a unique and complex series of challenges – ranging from cyclical droughts, monsoonal rains and ravaging bushfires, the geographic isolation “tyranny of distance” being replaced with a “predicament of proximity”.
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.
While public conversation about the overlapping national security versus national resilience challenges has started to gain greater traction, with the Prime Minister raising the topic in the public discourse during media interviews.
Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison articulated the increasingly convoluted nature of national security and national resilience in an interview with Peta Credlin for Sky News, stating:
“When it comes to keeping people safe, it’s also about our resilience, our resilience to the environment, the climate we’re going to live in in the next 10 years. And I’m sure we’ll have a bit of a chat about that tonight. But that resilience, too, whether it’s ensuring that our roads are built the right way so they don’t get shut down when there are bushfires or ensuring we’re addressing hazard reduction as much as we’re addressing emissions reduction.
“Because whether it’s the resilience of building a road and having clearing around it, which means it’s less likely to be cut off in a bushfire, or the way you build a bridge in a particular area so it could not be compromised because of natural disasters, what the building standards and codes are ... You know, in response to disasters, it’s not about replacement. It’s about building back better with better resilience for the future.”
This is a major breakthrough in the public discourse about the nation’s resilience and ensuring national security, something Blackburn believes needs to continue, telling Defence Connect, “We need to have a serious conversation with the Australian public about the challenges we face as a nation – that includes climate change, it includes the fact that 90 per cent of our energy supplies are imported from overseas and our industry base is declining.
“This should be a key focus point for the government, but when you look at the government’s own national security site, it is focused on counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and de-radicalisation and the vulnerability of transport infrastructure to such actors. This is far too narrow a focus for a nation like Australia,” Blackburn explained to Defence Connect.
An integrated response and the end result is ‘national security’
Australia has recently undergone a period of modernisation and expansion within its national security apparatus, from new white papers in Defence and Foreign Affairs through to well-articulated and resourced defence industrial capability plans, export strategies and the like in an attempt to position Australia well within the rapidly evolving geostrategic and political order of the Indo-Pacific.
Each of the strategies in and of themselves serve critical and essential roles within the broader national security and national resilience debate.
Additionally, the formation of organisations like the National Resilience Taskforce, state-based Energy Security Taskforces, and supporting organisations like Infrastructure Australia and broader government departments all serve to provide an intricate yet competing tapestry muddying the water and decision-making process for political and strategic leaders.
Each of these organs and constituencies in the form of state and territory governments have their own individual agendas and lobby accordingly for Commonwealth support and assistance, further complicating a national response, hindering both national security and national resilience in an age of traditional and asymmetric disruption.
Blackburn explained the importance of a cohesive, integrated response to national resilience and by extension, national security, “We have our departments doing great work in their respective fields, we have organisations like the CSIRO doing great work in terms of the hydrogen economy, energy security and the like, but the problem is each of these organs is siloed.
“One would expect that there would be a coordinating authority within the organs of government, which can support the development and implementation of a national resilience policy framework. Unfortunately that isn’t the case and we are seeing the affects of that today, so the only way to address this is with a coordinated, integrated response,” Blackburn explained to Defence Connect.
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.
In order to maximise the nation’s position, prosperity and security, is it time to introduce a role of a Minister for National Security or special envoy role to support the Prime Minister and respective ministers, both within the traditional confines of national security or national resilience like Defence and Foreign Affairs, to include infrastructure, energy, industry, health, agriculture and the like?
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.
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.
However, as events 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?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.
The full Defence Connect: Insights podcast interview with Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn AO will be available shortly.