For many nations COVID-19 has served as a form of divine intervention, revealing foundations of sand and the frailty of over dependence on the lowest cost proposition – Australia is no exception, however it is in the midst of this adversity that we can truly chart our own path forward.
Across the globe the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, the impact of COVID-19 exposing over dependence on global supply chains, asymmetric security threats, political warfare combined with myriad challenges are all serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations, including Australia.
Further compounding these challenges is a growing sense of societal unrest and upheaval across many of the West's leading nations, from the US and UK to France and even in the streets of Australia's own capital cities – all of these factors have served to demonstrate the limitations of traditional state craft and, concerningly have shaken the Australian public's confidence in the public policy status quo.
While we are far from the end Australia's first recession in nearly three decades, the impacts are beginning to be felt and despite the best efforts of both state, territory and the Commonwealth government's the impact will force a major restructuring of the national economy and Australia's relationships with both the broader global community and more critically, our Indo-Pacific partners.
All of this combines to form one absolute realisation: Australia's record period of economic stability and prosperity, buoyed by the immense mineral and resource wealth, combined with the benevolence of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order is at an end – it's time to adjust accordingly.
While this economic, political and strategic turmoil is in some ways 'unprecedented', the favoured catchphrase of many a media personality seeking to describe anything from the bushfires that devastated swathes of the landmass, the economic impact of COVID-19 or the societal upheaval sweeping the West, Australia does its best work when its chips are down.
Sometimes the past provides clues to the future
The last time Australia's public policy community was called upon to respond to such a predicament was the combined challenges of the Great Depression and the Second World War, both of which had a dramatic impact on the national psyche and the post-war period of rebuilding and expansion.
This model is perfectly summarised by Ricky French in a piece for the Weekend Australian, titled 'After catastrophe, opportunity knocks', where it is stated: "We’ve seen it time and time again.
"After bust comes boom. Major disruptions and economic calamities have historically opened the doors for positive change and left lasting imprints on our built landscapes.
"Against the backdrop of COVID-19 we’re seeing it again, with the rediscovery of the local neighbourhood counterpointing the tragedies of unemployment and its associated issues. We’ve started once again looking for a legacy, wondering how our country might visibly change for the better, seeking out that light in the gloom."
Indeed in looking for the 'legacy' as French states, the Australian public are seeking to reignite not only Australia's sense of identity, but equally reignite Australia's potential and indeed the promise our still young nation has to offer both to the citizens and the world, particularly as we will be increasingly required to provide for our own prosperity, stability and security in an era of great power competition.
Recognising this, French poses an important question for consideration: "So where to now? Our borders are shut, there will be no influx of migration to fulfil grand infrastructure schemes, or create demand for them.
"As we step into our first recession in almost 30 years, what lessons from the past can we learn? Will any shining landmarks stand out when we look back on this time 30 years from now?"
Well, that is an important question to ask and it is critical to identify that Australia's state, territory and Commonwealth government have made small strides to shore up industries across the economy, the approach is unfortunately fragmented and fails to be guided by a broader strategy and indeed vision for the nation at a time when both the public and the world are calling for Australia's level headed approach to life.
However the simple reality is, we can't offer the world our best, if we're not at our best.
Think long-term, plan, communicate, manage expectations and deliver
It is often said that much of Australia's public policy making decisions are based on the comparatively-short election cycles across the various jurisdictions and this is a challenge faced across the democratic world – however, the grand irony is, that if governments and oppositions planned for the long term they'd be more likely to be returned.
In light of this, it is time for Australia to plan for the next 15 to 20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency, vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
This approach requires more than vanity programs, which can be best left to local government or private developers, rather it requires a strategic approach to a number of highly visible, big impact public policy areas, including:
- Infrastructure development: Addressing the critical links between hubs of economic prosperity including regional hubs and metropolitan centres – including improved, faster and more reliable road, rail and air transport links.
- Water security: Australia is a continent of extremes, "droughts and flooding rains" yet we do little to adequately channel and store the vast quantities of water that falls – now is the opportunity to promote economic stimulus through infrastructure investment while supporting Australia's agricultural industry and drought proofing the continent.
- Energy and resource security: Addressing the nation's lack of strategic resource and energy supplies has come to the fore during COVID-19, preparing the nation for such challenges whether natural or man-made should be of paramount priority – this requires less ideology and more pragmatism.
- Strategic industry development: COVID has stirred many within the Australian public to question why Australia isn't manufacturing more of the critical – it is clear that Australia requires a concerted policy initiative in the form of a Strategic Industries Act to develop a robust, globally competitive industry 4.0 oriented manufacturing base.
Each of these contribute to the nation's sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia's post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Furthermore it serves to make Australia more resilient to man-made and natural shocks, resistant to coercion, economically competitive and robust at a time when the Australian public are calling for leadership, forward planning and vision.
In essence, it encapsulates the vision of then-prime minister Robert Menzies outlined not just a call to action for Australia, but also identified the nation's responsibility to support the development and maintenance of a peaceful world, saying:
"If we want to make our contribution to the pacification of the world, it is our duty to present to the world the spectacle of a rich country with a great people, with an adequate population – with a population which may justly say to the rest of the world: 'We are here; we propose to maintain our integrity as a nation; and our warrant for that is that we are using the resources which God has given into our hands'."
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.