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We need a joined-up security strategy for a dangerous world

By Anthony Bergin

This year's foreign policy white paper underscores the complex and uncertain world in which Australians now live, where big changes in regional and global policy are still working themselves out with very unpredictable results.

Threats or hazards may come from unexpected sources: we've seen evidence of recent state efforts with respect to espionage, sabotage and unwelcome foreign interference in domestic political processes by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Australia's key allies and close friends all face challenges relating to espionage and foreign interference. ASIO judges that the prevalence of foreign interference and espionage here in Australia is greater now than it was during the Cold War.

Effective national security relies on a multitude of departments, agencies and increasingly business in a growing network of collaboration. There's now a greater blurring between domestic and international security spheres, whether it be from terrorism, data theft, immigration or the growth of serious and organised crime.

As threats become increasingly interlinked, joining forces across government has become a necessity. That's led to the Turnbull government creating a Home Affairs department and an Office of National Intelligence to sensibly take more a networked approach to national security.

Ten years ago Kevin Rudd released the first national security statement to the Australian parliament that went as far as including response mechanisms to catastrophic natural disasters in Australia. Threats weren't listed in any order of priority and it read more like a list of horrors than a careful risk assessment. Five years ago Julia Gillard launched Australia's first national security strategy (she didn't even bother to table it in parliament) – and prematurely pronounced the end of the so-called "9/11 decade", an epoch marked by the constant threat of terrorist attack.

There's now a case for a revised Australian national security strategy to prioritise security policy at the national level. Publishing such a document would also follow a global trend of national governments producing their national security strategies. The US, UK, France and Canada have all released such strategies. The interconnectedness of security issues requires the government to take a joined-up approach in managing its response and that would be helped by an overall national security strategy.

The development of national security strategy would provide the Turnbull government with an anticipatory view of national security. It would articulate a vision of the new security environment in which Australia operates.

At present, there's a plethora of documents on "national security", be it the foreign policy white paper, the defence white paper, a cyber security strategy, the counter terrorism strategy and a critical infrastructure resilience strategy. Frequently, government departments claim to have a comprehensive mission, stating that they are "protecting Australia and its interests" (Defence), "working together to keep Australia safe" (Home Affairs) or helping make Australia "stronger, safer and more prosperous" (DFAT).

National security strategy

But there's still a possibility that missions are pursued by departments that are in conflict with each other, resulting in failure to meet policy objectives. A national security strategy could assist in the political assessment of the vulnerabilities on which to prioritise and allocate funding and direct resources.

It would develop a government-wide framework to promote greater coordination amongst relevant departments and agencies. It would assist the government to anticipate future threats and challenges, such as the cyber security of the nation's critical infrastructure.

A national security strategy would draw on key documents such as the recent defence and foreign policy white papers to set out the remit of national security and Australian 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. Such a strategy would enhance community confidence in the government's approach to national security.

Although the federal government bears responsibility for national security, such a strategy should also consider the vital role of state governments, especially in areas such as heath preparedness, countering violent extremism and recycling of national critical infrastructure such as power generation assets and ports. Local government bodies also make their own contributions towards national security, especially when it comes to protecting crowded places.

The process of developing a strategy would need to influence all relevant departments with standing on national security outcomes. Managing national security without a strategy is a recipe for an ill-coordinated response to emerging threats.

A national security strategy won't eradicate all the threats we face, but it can bring the various parts of the national security system to the table and assist the government to communicate its approach to safeguarding national security clearly and effectively.

An overarching strategy can place the security challenges into context with one another and help prioritise policy at a national level for the future. Creating a national security strategy is a critical step in the government avoiding a focus on short-term problems.

Anthony Bergin is a  senior analyst at ASPI and senior research fellow at ANU's National Security College.

Originally published by: AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW on 05 Feb 2018