Retired Major General turned senator, Jim Molan, AO, DSC, has played a pivotal role in urging the development of a ‘National Security Strategy’ to better prepare the nation for an era of economic, political and strategic disruption – supporting this end, Senator Molan has shed light on further details of what he envisages.
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 favoured 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, 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 lifeboats 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.
Many within public policy, political and even media circles have posited and presented a series of concepts and ideas to not only engage with the Australian public, but also support the nation's decision-makers and leaders chart a proactive course through this era of disruption.
Not least of these is retired Major General turned senator for New South Wales, Jim Molan, AO, DSC, who has long advocated for a coheseive, consistent and detailed holistic approach to enhancing and furthering Australia's national security, sovereignty and resilience.
To this end, Senator Molan has recently expanded and detailed his plans in an opinion piece, titled 'National Security – The Solution', in which he articulates the challenges, the economic realities of the nation's first recession in three decades and its implications for Australia's national security, sovereignty and resilience.
Addressing the economic and regional realities
Throughout his public commentary, Senator Molan has remained consistent in detailing the importance of a resilient, competitive and diversified economy as the foundation of true national security and to this end, he details the continued importance of such a focus, with a long-term goal for diversifying and enhancing Australia's economic resilience and capacity of the nation.
"The greatest thing we can do for the nation and for national security is to recover the economy, and our PM and Treasurer are doing that. The economy is the basis of our national security because it gives us the funds to prepared, and maintain social cohesion. But the thinking, the preparation, the processes for the next step must start now. Thinking is needed to produce a comprehensive strategy, not just for the military, but for the entire nation," Senator Molan articulates.
The last line of this statement expands upon the growing debate closer to home, the often overlapping areas of “resilience” and “security” are causing a stir among Australia’s public policymakers and political decision-makers.
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.
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', stating: "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."
Senator Molan expands on these points, stating, "I want Australia, as the very first step, to acknowledge that we face markedly changed strategic circumstances. That is a politician’s way of saying 'Threat!' We are threatened and we need to act now — not when the wolf is at the door as we have historically reacted to crises, but now. We are threatened by several authoritarian states, but especially by a rising power that is hostile to everything we are: free, democratic, prosperous, occupying a still undeveloped continent, an ally of the US.
"We have not seen anything like this since 1945, this is what the PM means when he talks about the 1930s, not that anyone is predicting war is going to break out in the modern equivalent of 1939 although that may happen, but the power relativity, who is the big boy on the block, is changing from an ally of ours, the US, to an authoritarian power, China."
Building on these points, he adds, "Only the government, through the kind of leadership it has shown in national security since 2013, can do this. The private sector, the people, our allies, and the states will help. But this problem needs Commonwealth government leadership, pure and simple."
Promoting self-reliance and a holistic approach
The economic, political and strategic impact of COVID-19 has been increasingly apparent the longer the domestic, regional and global crisis ensues. It is now front and centre for much of the Australian public as they grapple not only with the pandemic, but domestic challenges like the bushfires and a broader slowing of the economy, which have served to highlight the vulnerability of the national economy.
Senator Molan explained, "A self-reliant Australia can secure our own future, but we must also build alliances, be protected by them and be a significant contributor to them. The days of mindlessly relying on the US as our saviour in national security have gone, if they ever were there.
"The days of being complacent about national security are over, it is time for some constructive paranoia. The world has changed. We must accept this as our responsibility and act.
"This nation has significant vulnerabilities. This is particularly important to accept because we face a period of significant tension. If this tension is not managed, these vulnerabilities will be exploited and will prevent us defending ourselves and may lead to war and defeat. We must address those vulnerabilities one by one as quickly as possible. Addressing our vulnerabilities is a strong signal that Australia is on the path to self-reliance and that we are to be taken seriously as a nation."
This push for greater self-reliance and national development is reinforced by comments made by French, who stated, "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."
To this end, Senator Molan articulates the growing need for leveraging the full breadth of national power and policymaking to protect and promote Australia's national sovereignty, resilience and security in this period of global disruption and the need for such an approach to be considered, consistent and long-term in scope.
"National security is a national responsibility. In these demanding times, we as a nation cannot pour money into the ADF and think we have solved the national security challenge. It takes a nation to defend a nation," Senator Molan articulates.
"Preparation must come through a policy of national self-reliance based on a comprehensive nation-wide strategy, implemented through a modern national security organisation the equivalent of the Office of National Intelligence, which can both prepare Australia for high levels of tension as well as advise and manage all levels of crisis and war."
Senator Molan articulates a growing need to shake up the national discussion around national sovereignty, security and resilience, but also the policy mechanisms and frameworks that support the nation's political decision-makers and the Prime Minister in particular as they seek to navigate the challenges of disruption.
"First, acknowledge the need for change. That is the most important thing to do, the first thing to do, to acknowledge the need for change," the senator says.
"Second, begin the process of change. All this requires us to do at this stage is the thinking. Thinking does not cost much at all. The product of the thinking should be the basis of a National Security Strategy and the organisation to produce it.
"I suggest (others may have more sophisticated suggestions) an Office of National Security (ONS) with staff, headed by a National Security Adviser (NSA), to advise the PM in the same way that the ONI advises the PM on intelligence. The functions of the ONS would be to:
- Advise the PM through independent assessments of the national security preparation required across the entire nation to secure our sovereignty by being prepared for an uncertain future through self-reliance;
- Advise the PM on policy options during national security crises and contingencies; and
- The primary task of the NSA would be to produce, at regular intervals, a National Security Strategy for consideration by cabinet, and assist the PM to assess its implementation.
"Third, once the need is acknowledged and the ONS is set up to produce a National Security Strategy, implementation of that strategy could begin. My view is that the most important thing government can do in the short term (the period in which we manage COVID health and economic consequences) is to recover the national economy because the economy is the foundation of our national security.
"Implementation of a National Security Strategy, and the whatever expenditure might be required, could then begin in the medium term.
"If the need for a self-reliant approach to national security was accepted before the end of 2020, an ONS, with statutory powers under law, might be set up in 2021 able to produce a basic National Security Strategy addressing the security obligations of defence, cyber, manufacturing, diplomacy, energy and fuels, society, finances, education, borders, intelligence, food, and infrastructure. This could then be submitted to cabinet by the PM and considered by cabinet."
Going one step further, Senator Molan leaves a final poignant and considered statement: "Australia needs to secure its sovereignty by being prepared for the uncertain future we face, through a policy of national self-reliance based on a comprehensive nation-wide strategy, implemented through a modern national security organisation, which can both prepare Australia for high levels of tension as well as advise and assist the Prime Minister to manage all levels of crisis and war."
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.