Optimism is at the centre of the Australian character. We tend to downplay things that might go wrong, insisting that “she’ll be right” and that we will find a way through whatever happens.
It is because we are an optimistic nation that we have rarely considered the need to develop an overall ‘strategy’ that would provide a framework to address future challenges or threats. We have a long tradition of superb crisis management, yet in many cases have failed to plan logically for the medium to longer term future in a way that might mitigate or avoid crises.
Nothing could illustrate this more than our failure to have fully prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, even though we had already faced the threat of a pandemic several times this century. With such forewarning, a clever nation should have been able to prepare for a pandemic reaching our shores, and also to anticipate an economic crisis that would be associated with pandemic response.
Our lack of preparedness for this summer’s bushfires is another stark illustration of our recurrent failure to learn as a nation. We regularly suffer bushfires that burn large areas, kill people, and destroy property. We often follow with a Royal Commission, accept each of its recommendations, then fail to implement or follow-up on them. A few years later, we have another bushfire and the cycle starts again. This summer’s fires came after an appalling drought, with excessive fuel loads waiting to be burnt. We should have been paranoid about our situation, because you do not stop bush fires on the day with brave firefighters, you stop them in the preceding years with thorough planning, preparation, and hazard reduction. But those responsible did not do this, and instead we were forced to face a crisis that could have been prevented.
Though they are costly and dreadful for those impacted, fires and pandemics are not existential threats. After each incident, the Australian way of life still existed and, with a few changes, life went on. We have made any number of assessments of past bushfires, including the inquiries and royal commissions into the Black Summer bushfires now underway. We have mobilised the world to pursue an inquiry into the source of COVID-19, and I assume we will examine our actions within Australia over 2020. The real question, however, is whether we will actually do anything different going forward.
Our ability as a nation to plan for future contingencies, to assess those plans, and to hold authorities responsible is woefully inadequate. As a result we are eroding our own sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability to act reasonably in our own interests as a liberal democracy and for the good of our citizens. It depends on our ability to rely on ourselves in extreme circumstances; not to separate ourselves from the global economy, but to recognise that under conditions of uncertainty global supply chains can be a danger to the security of our jobs, our prosperity, our interests, and ultimately our sovereignty as a nation.
Australia has had the luxury over the last 75 years of basing its physical security on the power of the US and by being distant from world trouble spots. We have been able to grow our economy because of a stable regional and world order which allowed us to trade, but those circumstances have changed. US power and influence is nothing like its power at the turn of the century. The power of authoritarian nations inimical to liberal democracies is growing, and the most powerful, China, is in our region. We are currently in its focus because of our strategic relationship with the US, and for our liberal democratic tendencies. If we think that our recent bushfire and pandemic crises are as bad as it can get, then we are in national self-delusion.
Only in the last fortnight we have been made aware of a number of disturbing reports that reveal the challenges we face. Our lack of self-reliance applied to defence would have Australia on its knees in three months, according to two reports. We have started, but remain years away from, establishing a strategic liquid fuel reserve. The commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific has reported publicly to Congress that he is incapable of filling his role in the US National Security Strategy by being able to deter China. Most ominously, a series of wargames have supposedly shown that the US cannot win in a war against China, much less against China acting in concert with other authoritarian powers. And over trade and control of UN bodies, China once again is throwing its diplomatic weight around.
It is difficult to say how much of this is true, but it should be of utmost concern even if only partly true. By ignoring our strategic environment, are we practicing the equivalent of ignoring post-fire royal commission recommendations, anticipating the need to handle a pandemic, and linking pandemics to economic shutdown? It is vital that we recognise that the portents of a further economic crisis or conflict are now every bit as visible as were the summer fires or a pandemic. Recognising this unpleasant fact may go against the grain of our optimistic character, but our future sovereignty may depend on it.
Emerging from the pandemic and restarting the economy must be our priority, but that should be in train in the coming months. Government must then lift its head from its crisis management role and take an overdue look at the medium to longer term changes that this country needs. It must start with an assessment of the threats or challenges posed by economic or military crises we are likely to face, what they mean for Australia, and how we should prepare to face them. Economic, financial and physical security is the responsibility of the entire nation led by the government, and the start point must be a forward-looking strategy centered on securing national sovereignty.