No Fuel, No Medicine, No Fertiliser, No Defence: Self-Reliance and You

Sep 11, 2020

In my last Newsletter, I wrote about Self Reliance and I said that I would try to explain what the term, so often used now as a result of COVID, means for you, your family, your household, your neighbourhood, your city and your nation. This is a big challenge which is easier addressed by asking even more questions than be providing discrete answers.

I began last fortnight by writing about the magnitude of the problem of not being self-reliant as a nation, and why we are so vulnerable. In this Newsletter, the second of three, I want to try to explain how not being self-reliant as a nation, does or could impact every one of us in our daily lives. In the third Newsletter in a fortnight’s time, I will offer a solution.

I have explained that for a nation to be ‘self-reliant’ means that we can produce in Australia everything that we need. Not everything, or everything that we want. But what we need. If we produced everything we wanted in Australia, we would be called ‘self-sufficient’, and as I say, probably the only country that is near self-sufficiency is North Korea, which achieves this feat by totally impoverishing its people under an authoritarian government. Australia must trade and it must take maximum advantage of the world economy.

Most Australians noticed that we were not self-reliant (ie able to produce everything we need) when in the initial stages of COVID, we could neither produce what we needed to protect ourselves, nor could we import the personal protective equipment (PPE) or ventilators we estimated we needed. In some bizarre illogical way, this impacted on everyday Australians by the rush to buy toilet paper and some other necessities, and we started to see empty supermarket shelves. Government soon put our minds to it and we solved that problem, and we solved it well. We produced some of the items in Australia and soon, producing countries were able to export to us and some very innovative Australian companies adapted and satisfied our need.

Surely that is enough then, many asked. We can adapt and we did adapt. But on the scale of problems we may face in the future, COVID, terrible though it is, may not be the worst.  Other major challenges could impact on each one of us, far worse than COVID, if we do not become more self-reliant.

I have made the case often that the strategic environment (a nice way of saying ‘The Threat’) that we face in Australia from what might happen in our part of the world has never been so unpredictable as it is now. And I have often made the argument that with the rise of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and with Islamic Extremism still rife, Australia has not faced such a challenge since 1945. In July we saw the PM announce a new strategy (called the 2020 Defence Strategic Update) and an allocation of $575 Bn to the military over the next ten years (this includes $270 Bn for new equipment) plus new money for cybersecurity. As well, I have often written that what most Australians consider to be a given, that the US will come to our rescue in some war of the future therefore we don’t have to be so prepared, is no longer as assured as it may well have been. Since the end of the Cold War, the military capability of the US has been reduced by at least one third, and possibly one half. The US makes this point in their own National Security Strategy. The US cannot come to the aid of all its allies as it once had the capacity to do. We must assume that we are on our own—and hope that’s not the case.

War is so appalling that it is difficult to envisage. And war is something that is being prepared for in our region and across the world at a rate higher than I have ever seen. As a nation, we ignored the obvious in the 1920s and 1930s and we paid an extraordinary price. We must not do that again. The question that I ask is: If we think that the ADF needs $575 Bn over the next ten years to face the kind of threat implied by the PM in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, what does the rest of the nation need? The answer is simple. Australia needs to become far more self-reliant. The reason is simple: We need a nation to defend a nation, not just the defence force.

We are a nation that imports and exports, mainly by ship, most things that we need to keep the nation going and to be prosperous. The examples I use most often are 90% of our petrol, diesel and aviation fuels, 90% of our pharmaceuticals, and 90% of our fertilizers. We also import one third by value of every manufactured item that we consume, and most of these are the more sophisticated manufactured items.  Why? Because for decades we have been a globalized economy and these items are produced cheaper overseas so we import them. To pay for them we export natural resources by ship, and we also export services. This is a great system during periods of stability in the world with shipping routes open and ships prepared to carry cargo, and other countries prepared to trade. This produces prosperity but not security.

We all complain that “…everything on our shelves is made in China”, so if you accept that the willingness to export to us, or the ability to carry those goods over the seas in ships could be threatened, each of us can answer the question as to how we are personally impacted.

In the event of regional tension or worse still, conflict or war, ships will stop sailing in and out of Australia. Aircraft will not be able to replace the tonnages carried by ships and as tension or conflict increases, aircraft will stop flying as we see in COVID. The impact on us in terms of many imported items will be irrelevant in the case of high levels of tension or conflict. We can exist without many imports, for example, flat screen TVs, running shoes or T-shirts.

But what we cannot just go without is fuel for our vehicles to get to work or distribute food or harvest food. We cannot just go without spare parts for our energy grid that allows us to produce what we need, and to run our services such as health and police. And we cannot export our raw materials or move them to where we might use them in Australia. Nor can our defence force survive for longer than a few months, as their own studies have shown, without access to overseas sources of materiel.

But all is not gloom and doom. The government has started to move on this, as we saw in the recognition of the challenge we face by the PMs 2020 Strategic Update I mentioned before, I just hope that we have ten years and I hope that $575 Bn is enough.

The good news is that this nation has the most amazing defence potential. Probably as much if not more than any other nation on the face of the earth. We inhabit a single island continent. We have an educated and large enough population. We are still a very prosperous country, despite what COVID has done to us. Our manufacturing sectors is capable of coming back and coming back strongly over time. Despite the relative weakness of the US, we have strong allies and neighbours that share our values, and diplomacy and the economy is the basis of our national security. Finally, we happen to have a federal government that has recognized the challenge that the future holds, and is capable of leading us through this.

That is the challenge that our generation of Australians face. We just need two things. We need government leadership in the form of an overall strategy (called a national security strategy by other nations) for the entire nation and not just the defence force. And we need time to adjust.

In my next newsletter, I will explain this solution in more detail.