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It’s time: Policy experts call for a National Interest Strategy

Yet more public policy and national security experts have called for the government to step up its response to mounting challenges to Australias economic, political and strategic stability, with ANU’s Rory Medcalf and AustCybers chief executive Michelle Price leveraging a series of Press Club addresses and an op-ed to call for a coherent National Interest Strategy.

Yet more public policy and national security experts have called for the government to step up its response to mounting challenges to Australias economic, political and strategic stability, with ANU’s Rory Medcalf and AustCybers chief executive Michelle Price leveraging a series of Press Club addresses and an op-ed to call for a coherent National Interest Strategy.

It is a common criticism often on display around the dinner table 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.

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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 of mounting great power tension and further global outbreaks would have upon the nation’s economy, standards of living and resilience. 

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.  

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Stepping into the growing public, political and strategic recognition that Australia's leaders need to do more to prepare the nation for increasing great power tension, active state-based coercion is Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, and Michelle Price, chief executive of AustCyber, who have published an opinion piece titled, 'Why Australia needs a total national interest strategy' detailing the growing need for Australia to adequately plan for a future of disruption. 

The pair state, "In this new world, strategic competition between powerful nations is heightened. Our interests, values and the way they combine to make this country’s sovereignty and identity: these will be under constant pressure from multiple directions.

"The new geopolitics has made the character of risk an intrusive shape-changer: connectivity, cyber space and great-power rivalry collapse the boundaries between security and economics, domestic and international, people and technology. The vital terrain for international security is now what happens at home. 'Unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared,' wrote Air Chief Marshal (Ret'd) Mark Binskin recently, in the report of the royal commission into natural disaster arrangements," the pair detail. 

Building on these points, Medcalf and Price establish the true breadth of the challenges facing Australia, stating, "His [Binskin] words can apply to security more broadly: pandemic, terrorism, supply-chain disruption, foreign coercion, or worse. Our guideposts to securing Australia in the 2020s include risk, resilience and responsibility.

"Preparedness is key."

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, communicating and implementing a coherent national response.

In light of this, both Medcalf and Price expand on the calls made by the likes of Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn, AO, chair of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, and retired Major General turned senator for NSW, Jim Molan AO, DSC, for developing a cohesive and consistent policy response to these challenges, stating: 

"We are building or reforming many of the policy institutions, frameworks and capabilities needed to give Australia a chance in a contested future. Hence our defence modernisation, an Indo-Pacific web of partnerships, the establishment of the Department of Home Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence, new cyber capabilities centred on the Australian Signals Directorate, and the legislation to empower concerted action in the national interest.

"What is needed is a frank articulation by government about how all these pieces fit together – and what other preparations are needed.

"It’s time for a national security strategy – or more accurately a national interest strategy."

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. 

Furthermore, challenges surrounding both the Commonwealth and individual state and territory jurisdictions making trade arrangements or seeking foreign funding, as has been witnessed in Victoria's signing onto the contentious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have raised significant challenges, which both Medcalf and Price believe can and should be overcome. 

"For its part, the Commonwealth government needs to keep becoming open to risk management in sharing sensitive briefings with the private sector, infrastructure providers, state governments and universities. All parliamentarians would benefit from greater situational awareness about risks such as foreign influence. The risk-management approach should include reviewing the way we do security clearances for government officials," Price and Medcalf articulate. 

"The rigidities of the present system can be an obstacle to harnessing the talent of multicultural Australia, or new generations who live and think differently. State and territory governments need to be essential players in a unified national response to contemporary risks that touch ordinary Australian lives. All states and territories should set up a dedicated national security unit, within the department of the premier or chief minister.

"This would involve a small team of officials with high-level clearances, allowing them access to classified security information and intelligence. They could provide key advice to the first ministers in the national cabinet and the bureaucratic arrangements that are developing to support it long term.

"Having their own security advice would help the states and territories maintain scrutiny on the use of the new federal powers to block or reverse agreements with foreign partners, to help ensure it is sparing and proportionate. Likewise, it is important that when the government imposes security obligations on corporate leaders in relation to cyber security, there should correspondingly be trusted briefings to convince them of the seriousness of the risks."

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. 

Frequent Defence Connect contributor senator Jim Molan expands on the points made by Medcalf and Price, explaining, "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 Ricky 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."

Shifting gears

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 – building on the concepts for similar state and territory-based organs established by Medcalf and Price. 

"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."       

Your thoughts 

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 Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias 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.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It’s time: Policy experts call for a National Interest Strategy
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