Storms, bushfires and Covid-19—it’s time to rethink threats to our national security

In a year when Australian and other parts of the world have been battered by savage storms, intense bushfires, a pandemic or a combination of all three, it’s time to rethink how we approach threats to our national security.

The warning is delivered by West Australian Labor MP Anne Aly in the third volume of ASPI’s After Covid-19 series edited by Genevieve Feely and Peter Jennings.

Aly notes that the past decade has demonstrated that contemporary threats to our security and wellbeing come from unconventional sources in a landscape that’s much more complex and multidimensional, and much less predictable.

She writes that it’s 75 years since the end of World War II but, where conflict has endured, that milestone will have warranted little more than a passing nod—‘or perhaps a cynical sigh’.

‘In other parts of the world, consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the anniversary might give us pause to reflect on the changing landscape of international and national security’, she says.

For Australians, the year began with the bushfires blistering through the nation’s heart. A grieving population assessed the damage, dusted itself off and drew on strength and compassion to recover. Then the pandemic swept through China, Europe, Asia, North America and Australia.

Covid didn’t respect borders, form an orderly queue or discriminate, says Aly. ‘It can’t be shot at, bombed, arrested, turned back or sent home. Our front line of defence doesn’t wear army fatigues and carry a gun but is made up of ordinary Australians—hospital staff, nurses, retail workers, security guards, childcare workers, teachers and police.’

She says the ‘traditional’ hard strategies involving military force, policing, intelligence and legislation have proved insufficient for ensuring long-term security. They should be combined with soft power to respond to the root causes of issues such as violent extremism by considering social, economic, political and historical contexts.

In this diverse collection of political views, House of Representatives Speaker Tony Smith describes how Australia’s parliament adapted to the pandemic with new rules and practices. The institution proved resilient, and practical changes were adopted with bipartisan agreement and the use of technology.

For the first time, MPs took part in some parliamentary proceedings remotely, says Smith. The fact that proceedings were already broadcast via the internet, radio and television meant that Australians could observe the work of the House even when public access to the chamber was suspended.

Greens senator for WA Jordon Steele-John says the pandemic exposed fault lines in systems and flaws in approaches to problem-solving. It’s shone a light on the fragility of our economy in the face of external pressures, exacerbated global tensions and set the scene for an explosion of economic inequality.

We’ve arrived at a crossroads, Steele-John says. Do we continue to spend billions on military technology and further exacerbate global tensions, or invest in solutions to the real health and environmental challenges we’re all facing and focus on fostering global cooperation and conflict resolution to address people’s needs in a post-Covid world?’

Steele-John says billions are wasted on military posturing while real needs in Australia and the region are ignored. ‘It’s this type of tired, hawkish thinking that’s taking focus away from understanding, and prioritising, the real challenges before us and for which we can effectively plan’, he says.

‘The reality of our time is that we’re living in an age of climate crisis and accelerated ecological collapse. Right now—not in some distant future—climate change is putting the things that we care about at risk.’

New South Wales Liberal senator Jim Molan writes that Australia faces two challenges, Covid-19 and its deteriorating strategic environment, and it needs a national security strategy to manage both.

Molan says Covid has created an acceptance of change while the strategic situation has been recognised and key countermeasures have been initiated in defence, foreign interference, manufacturing and cybersecurity.

He says Australia has achieved great things as a liberal democracy, but it’s been rich and secure enough to hide imperfections and inefficiencies. ‘That era has finished’, he says. ‘To just re-establish the nation that we were before the pandemic wouldn’t be a triumph or even an achievement. It would be a lost opportunity, a tragedy, and possibly an existential one.

‘We have an obligation to turn the post-Covid period into Australia’s renaissance though vision, policies and strategies that create a self-reliant, prosperous, sovereign nation at no permanent cost to our real freedoms.’

Victorian Labor senator Kim Carr says there’ll be no return to normal when the pandemic recedes. Ways of thinking that dominated past policymaking are no longer tenable, he says. ‘The pandemic has comprehensively demonstrated the failure of neoliberal economics.’

That was, says Carr, a vision of Australia as essentially a farm, a quarry and a beach, but not a place where people make things.

Australians found that initially the nation couldn’t produce enough personal protective equipment for healthcare workers or enough ventilators for intensive care units in hospitals.

Carr says the government has accepted that Australia needs a thriving manufacturing sector if it’s to avoid such a crisis again.

Some kinds of manufacturing, such as steel, aluminium, cement, chemicals and plastics, are strategically vital, he says. ‘And, because those heavy industries are big energy consumers, the question of how to revive manufacturing can’t be separated from the question of how to provide reliable supplies of affordable energy while also meeting our international obligations on climate change.

‘It’s only by building sovereign capabilities in manufacturing that we can diversify Australia’s economic base and thereby reduce our exposure to the impact of global downturns and our excessive dependence on certain markets, most notably China.’

South Australian Liberal senator David Fawcett says Covid-19 has brought supply-chain integrity into stark focus and exposed vulnerabilities in commercial practices which often rely on components imported ‘just in time’. Disruption in supply can undermine Australia’s ability to function as a first-world nation.

The current federal approach to procurement can’t be relied on to deliver value for money in critical areas when under stress, says Fawcett, and the nation must ask three vital questions:

  1. Which critical supply chains can no longer be entrusted to free-market, just-in-time replenishment?
  2. How do we support those critical supply chains to generate a sustainable and scalable domestic capability?
  3. What do we need to change in our approach to procurement to achieve that?

The answers will make Australia more resilient and capable of responding independently to threats or crises, Fawcett says.

Greens leader Adam Bandt writes that in successfully responding to the pandemic, Australian governments did unexpected things. ‘Governments put scientists ahead of vested interests. The wellbeing of Australia’s peoples was put ahead of a budget surplus. The public healthcare system was exalted’, he says.

Covid-19 also exposed neoliberalism’s frailties, says Bandt, shown in the exclusion of casual workers from the JobKeeper wage subsidy, the use private contractors to run hotel quarantine, the failure to regulate for-profit aged care, and a market-driven approach to housing supply that allowed public housing to be treated as a low-quality, residual solution for people in need.

Australia, like most of the rest of the developed world, also stumbled in the early days of Covid-19 because it hadn’t heeded the advice of scientists and hadn’t adequately prepared for a pandemic, says Bandt.

‘The lessons here are clear’ he says. ‘We must put science at the centre of policymaking at the same time as we put care at the centre of political strategy. We must do this not just to prepare for the next pandemic but because the next emergency that scientists are warning us of is already here, threatening our health, our security and our species’ very existence. For all the deprivations brought about by Covid-19, they pale beside the looming impacts of the climate crisis.’