Gillard Has Her Security Priorities Wrong


Australia has a new National Security Strategy. Entitled "Strong and Secure", the 58-page document sets a laudable vision of "a unified national security system that anticipates threats, protects the nation and shapes the world in Australia’s interest."

The strategy sets out four national security "objectives" and outlines seven "key national security risks".

The objectives are largely uncontroversial, including the protection of Australian sovereignty, protecting the population, securing assets and infrastructure, and promoting a favourable international environment.

But the risks seem oddly mismatched with the objectives. That’s because some of the really obvious ones — like climate change, food security and global pandemics — don’t rate a mention.

The key risks that the document does envisage are more closely aligned to the typical way the government and the military thinks about threats. Top of the list is "espionage and foreign interference", which many would consider an important, but second level, threat. Also included, with a new priority, is "malicious cyber activity".


• Espionage and foreign interference
• Instability in developing and fragile states
• Malicious cyber activity
• Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
• Serious and organised crime
• State-based conflict or coercion significantly affecting Australia’s interests
• Terrorism and violent extremism

Australia’s new National Security Strategy outlines seven "key" risks to Australia’s national security. Climate change doesn’t rate a mention. Source: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

As we’ve argued here before, Australia’s thinking on national security is overly concerned with threats that don’t yet exist, like a militarily aggressive China, rather than those that do, like extreme weather events associated with dangerous climate change.

There were some new aspects of the strategy, most notably the significant attention it pays to cyber security and internet-based espionage. The cyber security aspect of the strategy was the key theme of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech accompanying the launch of the strategy.

Speaking in Canberra this week, Gillard made much of the threats posed by hackers and spies exploiting IT weaknesses to steal state secrets and conduct information warfare. "In this digital era we also face the new and growing threat from state and non-state actors of malicious cyber activity which poses such dangers to government, to business and to individuals," the Prime Minister warned.

Gillard announced $1.46 billion in funding for a new spy agency, the Australian Cyber Security Centre. "This will be a world class facility combining existing cyber security capabilities across the Attorney-General’s Department, Defence, ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission in a single location," Gillard explained.

Whether such a big new investment is warranted is another question. There can be no doubt that state-sponsored hacking is an issue that is worrying Australia’s military, police and security experts. In recent years, US and Israeli spy agencies have been fighting an increasingly intense shadow war with Iran, using viruses like the "Stuxnet" worm to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. And the Russian orchestrated cyber attack against Estonia in 2007 is well known. Internationally, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies lists no fewer than 113 "significant cyber incidents" since 2006.

The threat posed by a sophisticated internet-based attack on Australian key infrastructure should be taken seriously. Perhaps it already is, given the recent decision to exclude Chinese telco Huawei from bidding from supplying technology to the National Broadband Network.

On the other hand, the new emphasis on cyber security will undoubtedly come with its own set of challenges to Australia’s degrading online civil liberties. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made this point yesterday. "The notion that online security threats are ‘the new terrorism’ is already generating an expensive overkill in cyber security measures," he said in a statement. "The Government has touted a series of troubling measures including the proposed retention of the electronic communications data of all Australians for a period of two years. What’s next?"

While the cyber security announcement has driven the coverage of the strategy, perhaps the more important aspect of the new strategy is what it tells us about the government’s evolving thinking about national security under Julia Gillard. For instance, Gillard argued in her speech that the decade of 9/11 and its associated obsessions with non-state actors and international terrorism is coming to an end.

Some in the Canberra foreign policy clique — many of whom have bought into the neoconservative belief that Islamic terrorism is a kind of existential clash of civilisations — are already questioning that argument. "I fear that in future years we might just be talking about the 9/11 century," former top General Peter Leahy told Fairfax’s David Wroe.

Other commentators have picked up on the turn towards traditionalism that the strategy hints at. In The Australian, Michael L’estrange writes that "there is a tilt in the direction of the traditionalists and the pragmatists rather than the expansivists". L’estrange defines the traditionalists as those concerned with an old-school, state-versus-state approach to security thinking, while "expansivists" are those who seek to include humans security issues like climate change, food security, public health contingencies and natural disasters.

So hidebound is the security debate, the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen sees the new strategy as a positive sign that there is a role for advancing new ideas about the philosophy of Australian national security. If this is the case, it’s a very gradual and halting evolution. National security policymaking is still dominated by a small circle of analysts and top brass that largely conduct their debates away from the public eye. And a cohesive national security framework that incorporates a clear-eyed view of the real threats facing Australia in the 21st century seems further away than ever.

After all, the most important aspect of our national security budget remains the $24 billion Defence Department. But we still don’t know what key defence policy priorities of the Gillard government will be. For these — including final decisions on hugely expensive weapons systems like new submarines and Joint Strike Fighters — we will have to wait for the release of the new Defence White Paper, due out later this year.

At the beginning of her speech yesterday, the Prime Minister led off with an anecdote that reveals the blind spot that seems to afflict Australian thinking about national security.

"In Coonabarabran recently I met a woman who told me with tears in her eyes that she had lost her home," the Prime Minister related. "The next thing she said was, ‘but the family’s all safe and that’s what matters’."

The woman referred to had lost her home in a bushfire during New South Wales’ recent bushfires. Those bushfires occurred during an extreme heat wave, most likely exacerbated by global warming. Amazingly, the new National Security Strategy doesn’t even list climate change as a "key risk". Perhaps we should be pleased that it makes it into the document at all — there is at least a minor discussion of extreme weather events and their potential impact on Australia.

But it’s not enough. Given how quickly the world is moving towards a climate change "endgame", that’s vastly underestimating the scale of the climate change threat. As we argued last week, Australia’s preparations for our hotter and more dangerous future have barely begun.

Like most public policy, ultimately this a judgment call based on your priorities. Do you think international hackers are a bigger risk than the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and the desiccation of the Murray-Darling Basin’s food bowl? I don’t. But Australia’s national security apparatus apparently does.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.