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All-government support needed for effective national security strategy

By Anthony Bergin

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has slammed the image of an Australian soldier slitting a child's throat saying the image was "just beyond the pale". But the Premier's minister who played a key role in Victoria's Belt and Road negotiations refused to condemn the doctored photo.

Danny Pearson, who travelled to China twice last year to secure the deal, said he had "no responsibilities for those matters". Andrews stated he wouldn't waste his time counselling Pearson over his comments because this was a trivial matter.

Next week federal government laws are set to be passed that will give it the power to scrap agreements struck with foreign governments by states, local councils and universities. Premier Andrews has said these laws will allow the federal government to stick their nose into agreements like sister-city relationships. "If this is the biggest and most important thing for them to be doing at the moment, well, I look forward to them explaining that to everybody," he observed.

Such remarks from Victorian Premier and his minister fail to appreciate the uncertain world in which Australians now live. Threats or hazards may come from unexpected sources.

Effective national security now relies on co-operation between the federal government and the states with multiple agencies at both levels of government, and increasingly business, in a growing network of collaboration.

There's now a greater blurring between domestic and international security spheres, whether arising from key foreign investment decisions, terrorism, data theft, or the growth of serious and organised crime.

The states contribute many of the powers and capabilities needed to support our overall effort in dealing with a wide range of national security issues. But national security has too often been run as a "top-down" policy, with a tendency towards a "Canberra knows best" approach.

State governments are critical in heath preparedness, as we've seen during the pandemic, but they also play a key role in areas such as counter-terrorism and protecting critical infrastructure.

Harnessing the states for national security purposes will be essential to address our national security challenges. To achieve this, we need an Australian national security strategy developed with strong engagement by the states.

The interconnectedness of security issues requires a joined-up approach with the states.

A national security strategy would provide the Morrison government with an anticipatory view of national security. It would articulate a vision of the new security environment in which Australia operates and what that means for the states.

We have foreign policy and defence white papers, a cyber security strategy, a counter terrorism strategy and a critical infrastructure resilience strategy. But a national security strategy could assist in the political assessment of the vulnerabilities on which to prioritise and allocate funding and direct resources at both national and state levels.

It would develop a framework to promote greater coordination amongst relevant departments and agencies, including with state governments. It would set out the remit of national security interests and identify the risk factors within the national and international security environment to Australia. It would identify courses of action and means for ensuring agile coverage of national security by the states. This would enhance the confidence of the jurisdictions in the Morrison government's approach to national security.

Managing national security without a strategy is a recipe for an ill-coordinated response by the federal government and the states. A national security strategy that engages the states in its development won't eradicate all the threats we face. But it can bring the various parts of the national security system, including the states, to the table and assist the Morrison government to communicate its approach to safeguarding national security.

An overarching strategy can place the security challenges facing both tiers of government into context with one another. This would reduce the risk of state governments going off on a frolic of their own when it comes to national security.

COAG will probably morph into the national cabinet that was established to respond to the pandemic. The national cabinet should examine how the states operate in the area of national security.

To achieve better practical co-ordination and national security information sharing with the states and develop a greater level of trust and respect between both levels of government, the Morrison government should convene a regular summit on national security issues for senior state government officials.

During the pandemic state and federal officials have worked well in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and listened carefully to the medical experts. In a more complex and dangerous world the states now need to listen to the "science" of national security.

Originally published by: The Age on 04 Dec 2020