Business as usual isn’t enough when it comes to Australia’s national security

In a time of global uncertainty, Australia must take a more community-inclusive approach to national security.

Professor Rory Medcalf

ANU National Security College

We often don’t notice the words of our anthem. Perhaps we should.

Australians all. One and free.

And we would do well to remember these words when it comes to our national security.

For security can mean many things. But beyond day-to-day questions of safety, protection from threat and fear, it is about confidence and commitment in pursuit of a good future.

In my view, security is not about fear, or passivity, or fatalism. Nor is it about a fixation with the mirage of absolute safety at the expense of all’else that matters in living well. Instead, security is above all’a state of mind that helps us master anxieties by engaging confidently with risk. 

Yes, it requires physical protection and capabilities for defence. Lethal danger can hardly be imagined away in Ukraine, in the Middle East, or on the frontlines of China’s coercion in maritime Asia.

But security is also something larger: an idea - about what we value, about the future, about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

We each have our own idea of what security means in practice, and what are the best ways to seek and ensure it. At times, there should be dissonance, or at best a constructive counterpoint. 

Democracy is fundamental to Australian identity. By definition, those many of us who care about protecting the nation’s interests, values and identity do   speak with one voice.

But together we can all listen.  Whether about this country’s character and resilience, about our Indo-Pacific region and the world, about people and capability. Or about the policy choices that need to be made today in the shadow of the future. And about how we make our national response more than the sum of its parts, while working with - not against - our shared national values.

Because whatever else you think about Australia’s security in this age of contestation and change, of disruption and uncertainty, of acceleration and accumulation of risk, one thing is clear.

Business as usual is not enough.

"Greater community awareness is essential if we are to stand a chance of the nation being prepared for an era of global uncertainty."

Professor Rory Medcalf

In the nation’s capital, purposeful and professional deliberations on defence, diplomacy, development, democracy, values, identity, social cohesion, resilience, preparedness, prosperity, technology, energy, supply chains and sustainability are going on all the time.

But often these processes are compartmentalised in siloes of specialisation, secrecy, political caution, and the coded vocabulary of the insider.

Or positions are taken on the basis of partisan agendas. Or time horizons are either narrowly within a three-year electoral cycle, or in a temporal never-never that tempts political irresponsibility. 

This is hardly new, of course. And there’s been significant effort to improve national coordination and preparedness. But sometimes it still seems the present looks depressingly like the past, only more so.

Policy like politics is a slow boring through hard boards.  And amid disinformation and cultivated mistrust, it’s never been harder.

The country’s strategic challenges demand tough decisions licensed by an inclusive conversation. 

What exactly are we protecting when we talk about national security?  Do we really know and understand? Does the broader public?

How can we have social licence for capabilities to guard against risks the public is not being told much about?

This is why, when it comes to the security landscape, the gap between what government knows and what it says needs to diminish, not widen.

This ranges across the full spectrum, from foreign interference to cyber risk, the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure and social cohesion alike, through to the impacts of climate change across our stressed regional environment.

And it very much includes geopolitics and the military balance, including the strategic logic of nuclear-powered submarines, a capability that suits Australia’s long-distance geography.

This greater community awareness is essential if we are to stand a chance of the nation being prepared for an era of global uncertainty greater than at any time since the 1940s.

This article is an edited extract of a speech delivered to the Securing Our Future conference on 9 April 2024.

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