Writing for ASPI, John Coyne has called on Australia to use this period of global and domestic disruption to call for the nation to “make its own luck” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is single-handedly reshaping the geo-political and strategic order, but how can we do that?
With each passing day the impact of the coronavirus upon global supply chains is becoming painfully apparent, with Australia’s economy teetering on the edge of disaster – however, viewing the impact of the pandemic in isolation to Australia’s broader national security and national resilience only serves to further expose the nation.
Australia is unlike virtually every other developed nation, it has enjoyed a record near three decades of economic prosperity and stability, buoyed by the immense mineral and resource wealth of the landmass and the benevolence of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order.
However, 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 – further compounding these issues is the continued instability caused by the coronavirus and concerns about ecological collapse.
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.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has only served to further hasten the economic decline, stagnation and political malaise experienced throughout the developed world, whether in Europe or North America, once-powerful, world-leading nations are beginning to feel the pressure.
Further compounding the impact of the now global pandemic is the era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations.
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.
Australia is not isolated from the impact of these factors, as was witnessed during the summer bushfires and more recently with the economic, political and societal impact of the coronavirus as it rapidly approaches global pandemic status, placing increased pressure on the security of nations and global supply chains around the world.
In response, John Coyne of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has penned a piece, titled 'Making our own luck in the face of a pandemic', calling for Australia to use the impact of the global pandemic to take advantage of the moniker of the 'lucky country' and establish a semblance of national resilience and security, learning the lessons of over-dependence on global supply chains and blind faith in 'market forces' to secure national interests.
"Australia, like many countries, failed to heed such warnings. Critical pandemic readiness policies were overexposed to short-sighted budget cuts underpinned by the dogged pursuit of efficiency. The long-term development of critical infrastructure was left to the whims of market forces. Nation-building efforts were underpinned by a user-pays model," Coyne states.
"COVID-19 has already shown that market forces don’t promote adequate national resilience in myriad areas, from broadband bandwidth to the capacity to produce basic medical supplies, and that far too much of our preparation for pandemics, along with national resilience, was predicated on good luck."
Time to learn from the impact of COVID-19
Coyne begins with a powerful and timely call to arms for both the Australian public and the nation's leaders, as part of preparing the nation to "make our own luck" in a period of increasing global geo-political, economic and strategic disruption.
"Experience suggests that Australians will begin their search for the crisis’ heroes and villains well before we beat the COVID-19 virus. Inevitably, there’ll be several years of reviews and commissions of inquiry, involving all manner of finger-pointing and blaming. In that maelstrom, many valuable strategic lessons, especially about national resilience, will be obfuscated by the drama of the day: it’s easier to attribute fault than to learn. Therefore, it’s critical to encourage immediate public discourse on the issue," Coyne states.
"One powerful lesson from the first few weeks of the pandemic is that our national resilience can’t be left to chance. Yet, Australia’s COVID-19 success during the first two weeks of February 2020 was underpinned by dumb luck."
The key point of this is a growing realisation that Australia's national resilience must be subject to a considered, consistent and well-articulated strategy and policy platform and leadership from within Australia's political and public service class.
Adequately responding to these challenges also necessitates a clear understanding of the difference between 'national security' and 'national resilience', particularly in the modern context.
Coyne reinforces this, stating, "Until now, Australian long-term funding of national resilience and responsiveness often seemed economically inefficient. Little surprise, then, that policymakers regularly looked to the market to provide such resilience, especially in critical infrastructure investments.
"However, the creation of spare capacity is often not a commercially viable prospect. Arguably, the NT government’s decision to maintain the Howard Springs site, without a clear customer, was a high-risk one."
Addressing the broader issues
Defence Connect has been at the forefront of promoting debate about the development of a coherent and consistent national resilience policy agenda prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
This is something Coyne expands upon, identifying a clear request for consideration by both the Australian public and the nation's political leadership, stating, "The COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly clear that Australia’s current model for nation-building infrastructure investment is far too narrowly focused.
"The notion that such investments should be funded mainly by those who directly benefit from them is inhibiting the country’s resilience. This is even more obvious in Australia’s north, where Defence so often wears the cost of developing infrastructure that ought to be funded as part of a wider national security program.
"While much will need to be done to address this policy challenge, it seems that national security, in a holistic sense, needs far greater policy consideration if we’re to stop relying on dumb luck.
"As a starting point, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government needs to consider appointing a senior secretary-level national security adviser. That adviser would need to help ensure that Australia’s COVID-19 recovery efforts have a strong strategy focus on achieving greater national resilience and security across the breadth of the country’s nation-building efforts."
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.
NSW Senator, Jim Molan expanded on this, explaining to Defence Connect, "Australia has had one previous attempt at putting a national security strategy in place under the Gillard government in 2013. Although it was a decent first attempt, it has already been overtaken by events. Terrorism was the principal security challenge it focused on, and although the threat of terrorism has not disappeared, other changes in the world are demanding our focus."
Recognising this, Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
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.
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.