National resilience requires a whole-of-system approach

Owners and operators of Australia’s critical infrastructure will soon be turning their minds to the annual reporting required under the government’s new risk-management program. For many, this will be a new obligation under the amended Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 and one that sits within a very crowded federated reporting landscape. While there will probably be a few bumps along the way, the process is likely to highlight that an issue-specific policy focus (in this case, on critical infrastructure) won’t achieve the cross-sectoral or cross-jurisdictional action on nation-building that Australia so desperately needs.

There’s no doubt the requirements will challenge entities to better manage their security risks, which is a good outcome. Reporting will require them to identify material risks, minimise risks to prevent incidents and mitigate the impact of realised incidents. The list of entities covered is long and spans owners and operators of critical electricity, gas, liquid fuel, water, telecommunications and data storage assets. Also included are critical financial market infrastructure assets connected with payment systems, some hospitals, domain name systems, critical food and grocery assets, critical freight infrastructure assets and critical broadcasting assets.

The rules under the act identify four key hazard vectors: physical security and natural–physical security risks, cyber and information security risks, personnel and ‘trusted insider’ risks, and supply chain risks. However, this is still missing the mark that a more whole-of-system approach could achieve.

A 2020 OECD report outlines what such an approach would look like: ‘Next-generation systems analysis models have to better integrate real-world dynamics such as social and behavioural heterogeneity. This will help to represent social dynamics and complex collective decision-making and facilitate the evaluation of the effectiveness of policies and their systemic impacts.’ The key message is that policymakers should embrace interconnectedness and complexity and avoid oversimplification.

Of course, adopting a systems approach to nation-building is complex and challenging. But the point we need to appreciate is that not doing so has led us here. And not doing so will keep us here.

However, there is some movement. The joint federal and state government funding to rebuild roads and infrastructure in 26 disaster-declared councils in northern New South Wales has a ‘build back better’ focus. A joint media release says the $312.5 million package will mean that ‘roads can be not just rebuilt, but also improved to withstand future extreme natural weather events’. The federal government has allocated $980 million to 20 projects across Australia’s north that will deliver upgrades to ‘high priority roads … essential to the movement of people and freight’.

However, while the intent is admirable, the focus continues to be sector specific and fails to address the fact that the impacts of disasters aren’t abating.

In January, Western Australia’s Kimberley region was hit by extreme weather and flooding associated with Cyclone Elli. Once again, the fragility of infrastructure in Australia’s remote communities was highlighted. The defence force was called in to assist, but a C-130 Hercules aircraft intended to evacuate large numbers of people couldn’t land because of bad weather. Many remote communities were isolated for weeks and the highways connecting WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland were cut. The human impacts are shortages of food and drinking water, limited safe places to live, inability to work and financial stress.

Amendments have been proposed to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility that are intended to recognise that ‘sustainable and resilient economic development of northern Australia is critical to the prosperity, security and future of our nation as a whole’. These changes aim to empower the facility ‘to provide financial assistance to develop economic infrastructure for the benefit of First Nations Australians’ and will increase its investment capacity from $2 billion to $7 billion.

Many in northern Australia will welcome these initiatives. They have been waiting a long time for the message to get through about the inadequacy of roads, rail and infrastructure, and the importance of taking a whole-of-community view. We’re yet to fully appreciate the significance of these inadequacies, but given the geopolitics in our region and the concurrent and cascading natural disasters we’re experiencing, we need to get moving anyway.

Traditional approaches and dated thinking explain how we got here—and they won’t help in navigating an increasingly interconnected and complex world. The federal public service has a big role to play in embracing systems thinking to drive nation-building. However, the ‘robodebt’ royal commission has unearthed deep flaws in public sector thinking and it would be unwise to assume they’re confined to a single department or sector. There are renewed calls for the public service to provide frank and fearless advice. I’m reminded that, many years ago, a senior public servant told me that ‘Frank Fearless’ was locked in the basement. All these years later, it seems they’re still there.

The absence of expansive thinking and joint stewardship perpetuates a reliance on blunt legislative mechanisms, one-off funding boosts that address a symptom of a past problem in a specific location, and legislated expansion of mandates in an already crowded landscape. These are band-aid fixes at best.

There are a lot of challenges to navigate, including an inflationary economy, cost-of-living increases, skilled workforce shortages, climate change, geopolitics in the region and the need to transition away from fossil fuels—let alone the need to achieve on-time, on-budget delivery of defence capability. Until policymakers fully adopt a systems approach in their thinking and planning, we’ll continue to trade one priority for another.

We can and need to do better.