ASPI broadens its focus on northern Australia

In January 2019, ASPI established its ‘North and Australia’s Security’ program to provide a sustained research focus on the security of northern Australia and its critical role in broader security—and for a good reason, as most of our thinking at that time had been set in the late 1980s with nary a revisit since.

Today, during its 20th anniversary year, ASPI is doubling down on this critical research focus by launching its Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre.

The centre’s establishment is the result of a process of evolutionary development.

When ASPI’s northern Australia program began, there was a shortage of foundational strategic thinking on the region. While consecutive federal governments had continued to make significant policy commitments to northern Australia, there was a widening gap between those policy settings and actual activity on the ground.

In the program’s first six months, our work focused on promoting more significant discourse by identifying the gaps between stated defence policy and action in northern Australia (see here, here and here)

In August 2019, ASPI released Strong and free? The future security of Australia’s north, which argued that there was ‘a need to reconceptualise northern Australia … as a single scalable defence and national security ecosystem’. The report recommended that such an ecosystem be developed ‘to plan and deliver integrated support to current and future ADF and national security operations’.

We explored this scalable ecosystem theme in the ‘North of 26° south’ Strategist series throughout 2020. The subsequent discourse made it clear that realising the strategic value of the north depended on having a scalable defence industry, which in turn was dependent on economically and socially prosperous communities. To achieve such prosperity required more significant and innovative policy thinking about northern Australia.

In December 2020, ASPI released Thinking big! Resetting northern Australia’s national posture. This report highlighted the vast economic opportunities in northern Australia and how they can contribute to national security.

The report made the case that, while defence spending is vital to northern economies and nation-building, it is focused more on the defence organisation’s narrowly conceived portfolio of capital investments in defence establishments and facilities than on much-needed broader national security and economic decisions.

We found that there’s a need for the federal government and the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australian governments to take a more holistic perspective on northern Australia’s critical economic and national security role. The cities of Townsville, Cairns, Darwin and Katherine are vital to our defence and our financial and national security. They’re much more than simply home bases for our defence forces.

Over the two years, the program developed a sustained research focus on the security of Australia’s north and the critical contributions it makes to Australia’s broader security. In doing so, it actively promoted public-policy discourse on the north’s role in national security. But now it’s time for ASPI itself to think bigger about this challenge.

The Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre is being launched today to create a focal point for public policy discussion on nation-building in northern Australia and provide a catalyst for increasing the quantity and quality of discourse on the subject. The centre’s work will provide applied policy research that assists the private and public sectors to navigate increased strategic uncertainty.

With the support of the Northern Territory government, ASPI has established two work programs under the auspices of its Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre: ‘The North and Australia’s Security’ and ‘Nation-building in the North’.

The centre’s North and Australia’s Security program will continue to focus on defence and national security to ensure that Australia leverages northern Australia’s strategic advantages. It will also explore how the defence organisation can do more with a broader set of domestic and international partners in northern Australia. A critical element of this work will be exploring the north’s crucial role in Australia’s broader security.

The nation-building program will provide a sustained research focus on the development and security of northern Australia. It will promote discussion on the importance of ensuring that northern Australia has the defence and security systems and support services that are fundamental to both national prosperity and security.

Through its work under these programs, the centre will concentrate on:

  • maintaining a robust public-policy focus on the role of the north in the broader security of Australia at a time when strategic circumstances are driving new policy thinking in Canberra
  • updating thinking about the north and security, including the strategic framework of the 1980s ‘Defence of Australia’ policy
  • raising the profile of the north in broader discussions about the nation’s security beyond defence. This work will encompass home affairs, border security and customs, space, cybersecurity, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, biosecurity and energy security.