National resilience for Australia—learning the lessons
15 Feb 2024|

The last four years have been tough for Australia. We have seen the disastrous 2019-20 fire season, the Covid-19 pandemic, devastating floods and cyclones, the most comprehensive punitive trade measures used against any country in recent history, a doubling of cybersecurity incidents, including some of the largest data breaches and the most serious ransomware cases, more Australians targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time in Australia’s history, the re-emergence of right-wing extremism as a more visible and a growing threat to national security, and an acute threat to Australia’s supply chains sparked by the pandemic and exacerbated by the war in Europe.

Never have we found ourselves facing such a range of challenges and risks at the same time. In a new report National resilience: lessons for Australian policy from international experience for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I discuss how new uncertainties at the planetary level, including a climate and biodiversity crisis, an energy and industrial transformation and an explosion of new technologies will shape societal dynamics for decades. The Indo-Pacific region has become the focus for great-power dynamics, bringing a growing possibility of major-power conflict, as well as increasing calls to prepare for war. New ideological and populist forces are influencing the polity of Australia, Australia’s social cohesion is increasingly threatened, and our democracy is under rising pressure. Australia can no longer rely on the verities of our past to meet those challenges. We must adapt and transform to the new realities, preserving our core national values and institutions, while creating innovative new ways of addressing emergent challenges and reducing our fragility.

The Government has warned us that ‘Australia expects to face a future punctuated by more complex crises—particularly crises that occur at the same time or directly after one another. These types of crises are likely to exacerbate a range of pre-existing vulnerabilities in Australia’s systems, institutions and supply chains, placing our communities under enormous pressure and making recovery even more challenging.’ Experts have suggested that ‘the nation’s foundational institutions and civic infrastructure have become fragile and complacent, lacking the robustness and resilience to face the unexpected and prevail.’

National resilience provides a means to deliver a more systemic approach to preparing for and managing a future in which we face more frequent, severe, complex, cascading and compounding crises. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recognised the importance of a more encompassing, all-hazards approach to national resilience in his pre-election speech to the Lowy Institute in March 2022, noting that ‘fundamental to our national security is our national resilience’.

National resilience is a powerful concept to help nations develop the capacity to weather threats and challenges and emerge from crises in a better state than before. It is the ability to plan for, adapt to, prepare for, resist, respond to and recover from change and crisis, whether natural or man-made, singly or concurrently.  A national resilience approach to crises helps to frame an understanding of the interconnected and interdependent nature of the systems that a nation relies upon to function and provides a structure for making decisions during times of concurrent and cascading crises. National resilience also provides a powerful framework for deterring threat actors by ensuring that no single threat can overwhelm the basic functioning of society and the state. It helps governments to identify, resource and prioritise their investments in preparedness for, response to and recovery from crisis.

A comprehensive national resilience framework would also make economic sense for Australia.  According to a 2021 report on the economic costs of natural disasters in Australia, they currently cost the economy $38 billion per year, with this cost to rise to at least $73 billion per year by 2060. That report suggests that ‘The Australian economy is facing $1.2 trillion in cumulative costs of natural disasters over the next 40 years even under a low emissions scenario. This shows there is the potential for large economic gains from investments to improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters.’   Australian and international studies show that investments in resilience can reduce the costs of natural disasters by at least 50% annually. Investment decision making focused on building multi-use national resilience capabilities can also leverage investments for natural disaster preparedness, economic resilience, civil and national defence needs, ensuring that Australia is resilient for a diverse range of crises in the most efficient ways possible and potentially saving Australia hundreds of billions of dollars over the long term.

In my report, I have reviewed the national resilience practices of other nations and analysed case studies of crises where national resilience, or the lack of it, has come to the fore.  There are many lessons that we can learn from their experience in developing national resilience, particularly as many countries, including several key partners of Australia, started down the path more than 10–15 years ago.

The report highlights the importance of a whole-of-society response to the challenges ahead, pointing to the important role that the community plays in its own resilience, and how other nations have harnessed the community to strengthen their democracies and for defence and national security. The safety and security of Australia isn’t a task that can be left to governments alone. The national industrial base, the active involvement of civil society and an informed and engaged community are all necessary elements of building our national resilience.

Australia has the necessary tools and capabilities to meet our future challenges and create a more resilient nation that’s better able to ensure the resilience of its society, its economy and its system of governance. Doing so will require a frank, honest and trusted appraisal of our vulnerabilities and a new culture of being willing to work together to use all the elements of our national power to their best effect. The report has identified some key learnings for Australia should it embark on a more formal consideration of national-resilience concepts.

The report presents nine recommendations to government:

Institutionalise national resilience through:

  • a national resilience strategy led by the Australian Government in collaboration with states and territories, industry and the community.
  • a national risk assessment, prepared by the federal government as a classified document after consultation with the states and territories, industry and the citizenry, plus a publicly releasable version presented to the Australian Parliament and the nation.
  • a national preparedness audit developed by the federal government in collaboration with state and territory governments, industry and civil society.
  • a national preparedness plan agreed by the national cabinet.

Create institutional capability and capacity through:

  • establishing a coordinating office of national resilience within either the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Department of Home Affairs.
  • building national resilience training programs for governments, industry and civil-society leaders.

Establish a whole-of-society national resilience endeavour through:

  • establishing a national resilience council with industry, chaired by the office of national resilience.
  • forming national resilience community liaison teams within the office of national resilience to work with communities.

Build national resilience for deterrence and grey-zone defence through:

  • adopting a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to the national defence strategy to be delivered in 2024.

Now is the time to commence action to deliver a national resilience framework for Australia. Collective, collaborative action, enabled by governments, built on the capability and capacity of Australian industry and the community and aimed at the goal of a resilient Australia, can ensure that we’re well placed to face the future with confidence.