With projections that Victoria’s second wave could dramatically impact the nation’s recession and recovery, further compounded by the continuing impact of the COVID-induced global economic depression and great power competition, the window of opportunity to ensure Australia’s national resilience is rapidly closing.
Mere months ago, it looked as if Australia had dodged the bullet of a second wave of COVID-19 and the ensuing impact such an outbreak would have upon the nation’s economy, standards of living and resilience.
However, like many comparable nations, Australia is now in the midst of a second wave, which, while isolated and confined to Victoria, maintains the potential to have a truly devastating impact on the national economy, the Australian public, its standards of living and long-term national resilience and, by extension, national security.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of “closer collaboration and economic integration”, grasp at the life boats of nation-state to secure their national interest.
Despite the protestations and reassurances made by various Australian political leaders, the nation’s position as a “trading nation” does little to guarantee its economic, political and strategic security during a period of global recession and mounting geopolitical and strategic tension and competition between great powers.
With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lockdowns, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent.
Meanwhile, as cases continue to rise domestically – combined with the spectre of further national and state lockdowns and a constriction of global supply chains the national economy depends on – little, if anything, has been materially proposed to stand up a long-term, sustainable and sovereign capacity to promote Australian economic, political and strategic resilience.
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 governments 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.
Promoting ‘national resilience’ as long-term ‘national security’
The increasing vulnerability and shortfalls across the constituent components of Australia’s economy – be it infrastructure networks, economic diversity, industrial capacity, climate change, water, energy and resource security and now facets of the domestic policy space, including cost of living, employment and the like – all require a critical analysis and cohesive response.
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 and sovereignty 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.
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.
Each of these factors is touched upon by respected strategist and policy expert Alan Dupont in a piece for the Weekend Australian, titled “Coronavirus: Golden opportunity to broaden and strengthen our national security”, in which Dupont sets the scene, stating:
“Despite its terrible toll, the pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite the country around a security agenda that will reshape how we live in a post-COVID-19 world.
“How this agenda will be constituted and implemented is for debate. But security experts increasingly believe national security policy should be more holistic, integrated and focused on making us resilient to such shocks.”
Building on this, Dupont proposes a number of possibilities to both stimulate public debate and prompt Australia’s political leaders into taking action at a time when the Australian public is demanding not only leadership, but also a plan to capitalise upon the immense opportunity presented by the rise of the Indo-Pacific.
“In recent weeks, there have been calls for ‘smart’ sovereignty, less dependence on global supply chains, rejuvenating our vanishingly merchant navy, building a non-military system of national service, hardening the nation’s infrastructure and adopting the idea of total defence,” he articulates.
“All these ideas have merit, and bringing the best of them together in a revamped security strategy won’t be as difficult, or expensive, as traditionalists think. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, provided governments are willing to learn from our mistakes, build on the national security machinery already in place and work across the political divide to build a new strategic consensus.”
While the Commonwealth has moved to reassure both the Australian public and its alliances around the world with the announcement of the $270 billion 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting 2020 Defence Force Structure Plan designed to maximise the traditional “defence” understanding of deterrence, the precarious position of the nation’s economy leaves a critical part of the nation’s deterrence capabilities unaddressed.
This point is further enhanced by a poignant and timely question raised by senator for NSW, retired major general and long-time advocate for a holistic National Sovereignty Strategy, Jim Molan AO DSC, who recently told Sky News:
“The point that I make is that if we need to put $270 billion over the next 10 years into defence, what other parts of our society, of our nation do we need to address to match whatever this $270 billion is going to buy us in the end?
“The basis for our national security is the economy. The problem I have is how does a government know risks it is taking by not funding certain aspects of national security, if it doesn’t know what we absolutely need?”
Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the 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 21st century’s era of great power competition and 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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
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.