Deputy director of ASPI’s professional development program, Gill Savage, has joined growing calls from across the breadth of Australian society to call for the government to ditch the short-term thinking and begin policy making for the long term.
It is a common criticism often on display around the dinner table of any family over the festive period as we all break the cardinal rule, "don't talk about religion, politics or money in polite company", as family often conflict over differing opinions, with the direction of the country and its leaders a frequent punching bag.
One of the frequently cited issues is the lack of foresight that is seemingly prominent within Australia's political leaders and the policies they introduce, with many Australians critical of the 'electoral' cycle focused politicking that has now seemingly left the nation vulnerable to the global and domestic impact of COVID-19.
This is particularly true as 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.
Each of these factors, combined with the disastrous impact of the bushfire season and a decade long drought, have left the nation in a precarious position and its first recession in generations, with many Australians struggling to keep their heads above water and looking to their political leaders for guidance and a plan.
Throughout this trying year, the terms national resilience and national security have become the catchcry's for many public policy experts seeking to shift the dialogue and public consciousness to better respond to future natural and man-made shocks, particularly as great power competition becomes increasingly common.
Entering the growing choir is deputy director of ASPI's professional development program, Gill Savage, who has penned a piece titled 'COVID-19 shows need to accelerate national policymaking for future challenges', in which he explains: "If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that Australia needs to link long-term planning with emergency and operational co-ordination.
"Our future prosperity depends on governments thinking in terms of rolling and concurrent crises, ensuring solutions solve multiple challenges, valuing independent expert advice, and bringing the public interest front and centre."
Adapting to an era of disruption is critical
For Savage, the era Australia and it' allies, both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly around the globe, find themselves in is one of disruption — characterised by both natural and man-made disruptions, whether it is pandemic, the impacts of climate change or great power competition, this is the new normal and it is time to plan accordingly.
In response, Savage explains, "Currently no entity has responsibility for developing holistic national solutions. And we don’t seem to be thinking about how our governments’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis — and the structures they’ve used to cut across agencies — might be useful beyond the pandemic. Our pre-COVID approach didn’t serve us that well, and returning to it won’t help us in the future.
"It’s time for a broad debate about what new policy making structures and approaches are needed to address our changed national priorities as we emerge from the pandemic. Otherwise, we risk trying to rebuild Australia by getting back to business as usual, assuming we can plug back into the world economy that we knew."
Expanding on this, Savage cites comments made by ASPI colleagues John Coyne and Peter Jennings, who have "argued that ‘Australia needs to be ready to deal with the crisis after the crisis’".
"Sadly, the continuation of stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne and state border closures are a sobering reminder that ‘after the crisis’ may be a long way off. But we shouldn’t be waiting for the current challenges to subside before planning for Australia’s future challenges," he says.
"Shaking off our collective COVID exhaustion to address, in parallel, our new national priorities will be hard, but we must find that resolve. And the downside of the pandemic response measures is that they commit future generations to an even more unaffordable Australia."
In establishing this, Savage also sets out a challenge for Australia's political class, it's strategic policy thinkers and the public service as they all grapple with the myriad challenges now facing the nation and the Australian public.
Prioritising sovereignty, national resilience and 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”.
Savage provides interesting critiques of the intersection of securing sovereignty, national resilience and security in the increasingly contested environment, stating, "The government’s 2020 defence strategic update addresses Australia’s sovereignty, including grey-zone statecraft and countering rising strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. We also need to boost our capability to respond to grey-zone challenges which are impacting governments, industries and communities.
"But what of our wider non-defence interests that are just as important in securing national resilience? For example, how do we build our manufacturing base while at the same time supporting the openness of the global trading system?
"How can we improve our supply resilience to carry us through future crises? And how can we strengthen our democracy and social cohesion with policies and programs that drive ‘peace, stability and prosperity’?"
In doing so, Savage expands on calls made by former director of the Department of Defence’s preparedness division, Cheryl Durrant, who has echoed the sentiments of regular Defence Connect commentators – senator for NSW and Major General (Ret’d) Jim Molan AO, DSC; Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn, AO; Major General (Ret’d) Gus McLachlan, AO; and Dr Peter Layton – in calling for greater long-term planning for the nation’s future.
Durrant told ABC, "We predicted the unpredictable. We knew the problems. We knew this might be coming. We knew that various things needed to be done.
"We saw three main possibilities of that happening: the increasing and escalating effects of climate change and natural disasters; a global power conflict, probably between America and China, and finally a pandemic – one with a much greater death rate than what we’re seeing with the COVID crisis."
Expanding on these points, Durrant added additional questions, asking, "The review looked at the big issues, like if we had to go to war, do we have enough fuel? Do we have enough energy? Can the national supply chains and our national infrastructure support Defence in a war or other crisis?
"We asked, if we had basically a halt on global supply – a couple of steps more demanding than we are seeing in the current crisis – what would run out in one week, two weeks, one month or three months?"
Perhaps, more importantly, Durrant issued an important challenge for Australia’s public policy and strategic leaders, stating, "Australia is at an interesting fork in the road where it goes on from here. If we take the attitude, ‘She’ll be right, go back to business as usual, bounce back’, I think we’re going to find ourselves not as well prepared for what happens next."
Expanding on this, Savage adds, "Recent additions to the national crisis response landscape such as the national cabinet are important but their focus is specifically on COVID-19.
"While Emergency Management Australia is the focal point for disaster response and resilience in Australia, the broader system is not addressing longer-term challenges.
"In a statement to the royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, noted, ‘There is a strong case for greater centralisation of decision-making in relation to preparedness, response, resilience and recovery from all-hazards’.
"The objective should be to ensure diverse institutional perspectives are brought to the table. It’s no surprise that the best results in the pandemic response have come from co-ordinated federal and state decision-making.
Savage adds finally, "Now is the time for big thinking and bold policymaking."
In order to maximise the nation’s position, prosperity and security, is it time to introduce a role of a Minister for National Sovereignty 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 is defined by its economic, political 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.
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.