Every day the battle between the Prime Minister and various state and territory leaders seems to get worse, as both sides dig their heels in. This division creates a dangerous precedent at a time when cohesive, consistent policy making will be the key to limiting the impact of the recession, but how do we respond?
With every passing day it seems as though the Commonwealth is edging ever closer to unprecedented turmoil, as the various premiers and chief ministers directly challenge the federal government and refuse to reopen their borders to domestic travel and renewed economic engagement.
Despite a promising drop in national unemployment numbers, the nation's first recession in nearly three decades is here and with every minute the interstate borders remain locked down the recession is prolonged, and while concern for public safety can be understood, the question has to be asked: at what point is the 'cure' worse than the disease?
This disparity and combativeness between the Commonwealth, state and territory jurisdictions is the latest incarnation of how fragmented the public policy making community is, despite the seeming 'success' of the national cabinet and other organs like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) – with other examples including the 2019-20 bush fire response, the disastrous Murray Darling Authority and of course the gift that keeps on giving, GST payments.
All of this comes as the Australian public continues to struggle with varying levels of domestic lock down, increasingly strained and in some cases, collapsing local supply chains, let alone international ones, all while witnessing a constant war of words between the nation's leaders.
One can't help but look at all of this and think if the nation truly faced an existential crisis to its sovereignty, security and prosperity we would be left at the mercy of external forces.
All of this combines at a time when across the globe, the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order is coming under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest and rising levels of the favourite boogeyman of much of the media: 'nationalism'.
Growing economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geo-strategic competition between the world's great powers are all undermining the global balance of power.
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 lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interest.
So, how do we respond to these challenges? How do we consolidate during this period of disruption, turmoil and prepare for the future as a Commonwealth?
Understanding Australia's predicament
When viewed in isolation, each of these individual factors serve to provide overlapping challenges to a nation's national security and stability, however, when combined, this perfect storm of factors challenges the long-term stability, prosperity and security of a nation-state and, in short, its national resilience.
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.
For Australia, the combination of these factors couldn't have come at a worse time. Following the disastrous impact of summer bushfires impacting various sectors of the economy, combined with a decade of drought, the advent of coronavirus serves to undermine Australia's economic miracle, while highlighting a critical factor: Australia is too dependent on China.
In particular, the economic dependence of Australia upon China, which has since the end of the 1980s been described as the "world's manufacturing hub", has been buoyed by unfettered access to cheap Australian raw resources, energy and agricultural goods leaving the nation dangerously exposed to a downturn in the world's second largest economy.
Indeed, recently amid growing concern about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the Chinese economy, which has sent shockwaves throughout the global economy, Australia, South Korea and Brazil have been recognised as the most exposed to Chinese volatility.
Michael Heath recently expanded on this for Bloomberg, articulating, "The coronavirus hit has exposed the extraordinary depth of Australia’s economic dependence on China and fuelled questions over whether the nation is too reliant on the Asian behemoth.
"Australia is the most China-reliant economy in the developed world, with about a third of its exports going there. Chinese nationals making up roughly 38 per cent of its foreign students and 15 per cent of its tourists."
This is further compounded by the growing tensions between the state, territory and Commonwealth governments over infrastructure funding provided through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being placed over the national interest and national security.
However, we shouldn't be mistaken, Australia's predicament isn't all about the growing economic, political and strategic tensions between Canberra and Beijing, this is merely another catalyst highlighting the true weakness of our fragmented system.
Time for an honest conversation
It is becoming abundantly clear to the Australian public that the nation is struggling to respond to the myriad economic, political, strategic, environmental and infrastructure challenges that are currently arrayed against it.
The internal squabbling is also dramatically impacting the public conversation. Accordingly, it is time for an honest conversation with the Australian public, with the nation's leaders setting aside their individual interests and taking a direct role in designing, implementing and communicating a coherent national response.
Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn, AO, chair of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, spoke with Defence Connect to explain in detail the breadth of Australia's vulnerability and susceptibility to external shocks, telling Defence Connect:
"I think the very first thing we have to have is an honest conversation with Australians about our vulnerabilities and our lack of resilience.
"We need the government to have a mature conversation with us. Perhaps they could say that we are facing some complex risks and that our economy will probably stagnate, at best. We have a deteriorating security situation in the region. We need to discuss what realistic options exist to address these risks and to improve our resilience to future shocks."
He added, "We can keep promising jobs and growth, but that's just slogan. We will have to make some hard decisions in the next decade and as previous generations had to when faced with similar situations. The hard economic decisions taken by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments positioned us to be able to withstand the GFC. We do not have the same economic strength today to deal with the challenges we now face, from bushfires to floods to a pandemic, and we do not appear to have the political will to proactively address them.
"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'."
Consistent, cohesive and directed policy
While 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.
The individual, siloed 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 into a single, cohesive strategy led by a single, direct and considered voice.
In order to maximise the nation’s position, prosperity and security, is it time to introduce a role of a Minister for Sovereignty and Resilience or special envoy role to support the Prime Minister, respective ministers and the various state and rerritory representatives?
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.