Australia Needs a New National Security Strategy

Drafting a new national security strategy will be a grueling and charged affair, but it’s time for an update.

Australia Needs a New National Security Strategy
Credit: Pixabay

The mishmash of Canberra-produced strategies and white papers in the last five years on defense, foreign policy, cyber, counterterrorism, and critical infrastructure, among others, is dense. This library of mismatched visions is muddying Australia’s response to threats. The world is interconnected and there is no longer a clear delineation between the international and the domestic. These articulations all have one common theme – national security – which drives these expressions of Australia’s foreign, cyber, counterterrorism, and defense interests. With a national election approaching, the winning party must prioritize articulating a true “national security strategy” free of ideology, which will form an overarching statement on values, actions, and resourcing to mitigate all threats to Australia’s national security.

The national security imperative justifies a range of policy options across agencies and departments, to protect national interests and values. National security is a meaningful concept as required responses to issues of national security are justified by protecting and maintaining sovereignty. How the Australian government anticipates threats, protects the nation, and shapes the region has only once been fully articulated in the now dated (and since removed from government websites) 2013 Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security. An update for this strategy is now overdue.

A new national security strategy must address how Australia will combat provocation across the spectrum of issues. These issues include not only traditional realist considerations such as geopolitical trends, military posture, and foreign interference but also emerging nontraditional security concerns such as climate change, cyber issues, and serious and transnational organized crime. The new strategy must encompass the needs of society against the myriad security concerns. Properly articulating issues and proposing reasoned mitigation plans is key to producing a coherent strategy that will remain relevant for the next five to 10 years.  

Paramount to Australia’s new national security strategy is a clear allocation of resources against threats. Calculating how much Australia needs to spends across government on each vulnerability is fraught and daunting. The assorted government agencies – both at the state and Commonwealth level – undertaking counterterrorism and/or countering violent extremism work is considerable. A national security strategy must clearly articulate funding allocations and expected outcomes for such investments. Despite the often opaque nature of security spending, the Australian people deserve a better appreciation of how their taxes are invested for the peace and prosperity of society. Resource allocation will result in hard political choices and intense interdepartmental jousting. However, Australia’s national security budget is not infinite, and allocations must be made rationally and with a holistic understanding of threats.

The intergovernmental politics of drafting a national security strategy will be lively and fierce. While the Department of Home Affairs may angle for ownership of this project – in line with their mandate for domestic security – as in 2013, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) is best placed to provide the political leadership and the whole-of-government approach required. Drafting an overarching national security strategy to connect Australia’s various white papers and security-related strategies requires prime ministerial oversight and approval. In addition to PM&C’s project ownership, the national security strategy must have a comprehensive public consultation process and appoint an expert advisory panel. Attaining and maintaining national security takes the whole community, all of whom must be heard in the drafting of such a seminal strategy.

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Drafting an Australian 2019 national security strategy will be a grueling and charged affair. How has the world changed since 2013? How have Australia’s values changed, and what are we trying to protect and from whom? Viewing the world through a national security lens is an increasingly popular means to anticipate not only threats, but also opportunities. The reality of security is complex, and policymakers must constantly re-evaluate the trade-offs and contradictions contained in any decision based on national security. While national security policy making in Australia is complex and hazardous, risks are real and plentiful. Recent white papers and strategies are piecemeal and of limited scope. At its core, an effective and coordinated national security strategy ensures a peaceful and prosperous future for Australia from the myriad threats and dangers we face.

Samuel Bashfield is a postgraduate student at the Australian National University, undertaking a Master’s of National Security Policy