Devastating bushfires, the economic and societal impacts of a global pandemic, great power tensions and now a heavier than predicted La Niña season, 2020 seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. For ASPI senior fellow Paul Barnes, responding to these challenges needs to take higher priority for government and academia.
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.
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 lockdown, 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.
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.
In response, a growing number of political and economic commentators, members of parliament and academics have called for government to make national resilience a greater priority in the post-COVID era.
The latest of these is ASPI senior fellow Paul Barnes, who says each of the man-made and environmental factors requires greater research capacity in order for Australia to better respond and rebound from crisis.
Barnes sets the scene, stating, "Australia’s threat landscape has changed dramatically over the past 12 months — starting with last summer’s cataclysmic bushfires, followed by the appearance of COVID-19 and its cascading impacts on society and the economy, and now the expected arrival of La Niña weather patterns bringing increased rainfall and the onset of an early monsoon season in the tropics as well as increased cyclonic activity.
"While current conditions are very different to those leading up to last year’s crises, state, territory and federal agencies and local governments have sustained their efforts over the winter period to mitigate risk factors critical to the summer ahead. A viable question, however, is what does Australia need to emphasise now to position itself to better cope with the conditions of our near future?"
Research is key
For Barnes, empowering research opportunities and organisations are a critical component of enhancing the nation's resilience and capacity to respond, with research organisations providing direct support to policymakers in times of crisis.
Barnes explains, "Some steps towards answering that question have been taken by the initiation of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The royal commission published a set of interim observations on 31 August providing some insight into the direction of its thinking. These observations cover a selection of issues ranging from cultural burning practices and existing national natural disaster arrangements (including constitutional issues) to community health impacts and the role of local government.
"A few days later, on 4 September, counsel assisting the royal commission released a set of draft propositions covering aspects of the terms of reference for the commission, informed by submissions and evidence supplied since hearings began in May this year.
"While each document addresses several important elements, both focus on supporting increased research to enhance Australia’s resilience to natural hazards and reduce disaster risk, aligned to national research priorities."
Barnes expands on these points, highlighting a growing capacity within Australia's academic institutions to provide the specialist analysis and research capabilities required to make the nation disaster-resilient, stating, "A key driver of that research capacity is the new national disaster research centre, announced by the government on 23 July with a commitment of $88.1 million over 10 years. The centre will be ‘co-funded by partners from across Australia, including state and territory governments and emergency service agencies, universities and industry partners’. It is expected to be collaborative on a national scale.
"Collaboration within Australia’s higher education system on disaster resilience outcomes is obviously of benefit to all, but a question of some interest is how to structure a collective effort. Here are two ideas to support this important outcome.
"The first focuses on intra-university teaching and research collaboration. In August 2011, the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group published a brochure titled ‘Disaster resilience: preparing, responding and adapting’. It outlined a variety of teaching areas and research strengths among its members that showcased different yet complementary expertise across a range of disaster management and resilience knowledge areas.
"The second idea entails establishing or reinvigorating applied research centres or institutes to examine natural hazards and disaster resilience within universities and act as enablers of innovative thinking in private-sector and public-sector institutions active in disaster management.
"Australian universities have a long history of supporting research groups in these areas. Notable among those currently active are the Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University, the Australian National University’s Disaster Risk Science Institute, the Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety at the University of Melbourne, and Monash University’s Disaster Resilience Initiative. They, like those that came before, play important facilitation roles between academia’s ‘hallowed halls’ and the real world."
This push to enhance the mechanisms and resources available to decision-makers echoes the calls of 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 its 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.
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."
For Barnes, this growing groundswell of support is perfect for greater engagement and participation from Australia's academic institutions, saying, "The royal commission’s advice on our national research needs can be supported through the creation (where needed) of university-based research and collaboration centres operating in close co-ordination with state-based disaster management agencies.
"In addition, we need to encourage the development of a consortium of universities collaborating on teaching core and evolving skills for enhancing disaster resilience. Such programs should be offered at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels, using the established Cotutelle model (where feasible) for domestic co-supervision of higher degree research candidates across consortium members.
"The intellectual capability for these innovations exists already in our universities. We need to apply our productive higher education sector to support the new all-hazards, all-threats crisis-readiness and response repertoire required for the near future and beyond. Australia needs a networked consortium of teaching universities — including regional research centres — supporting our emergency and disaster management needs across the broad spectrum of existential threats we face."
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.