he past 18 years has been a period of significant disengagement and disinterest by the community in Australian political affairs. The political shenanigans described in Malcolm Turnbull’s recent book A Bigger Picture ought to be a wake-up call that as our political leaders have jostled for the right to exercise power from the PM’s office, time has been a’wasting in finding appropriate solutions for the challenges Australia must face over the next three decades. It is time for us to hold our governments to account for the quality of their governance.
Until the end of last year, we had blindly turned away from doing anything to address many of the challenges that have been laid out by science and respected commentators. Bigots in our media and parliaments have held sway and prevented much from being done. The result has been a lack of preparation to deal with the serious issues we confront.
This lack of preparedness concerns me. I spent more than 40 years in the defence force watching for events that could present challenges to our national security. Successes under my leadership were made possible by preparedness and a federal government that listened carefully and acted appropriately.
With the shock of the bushfires and fire storms of the last summer followed by floods and now with the global Covid-19 pandemic Australians have experienced first-hand the manifestation of a significant lack of preparedness fostered by the absence of strong, principled and effective leadership. The impact of these shocks will have a lasting impact on our economy, our society, and our wellbeing. The current pandemic is a wake-up call for what needs to be done to counter predictable and potentially existential threats from global warming, and their impact on the climate and other systems critical to human life on the planet.
Early in April the Economist Intelligence Unit reported an expected global economic contraction of 2.5% this year as a result of the pandemic.
Australia’s geo-strategic future is very uncertain. Our national character and will are likely to be challenged in many new ways
This huge downturn in the global economy has taken place in just a few weeks. Its effects will be felt for a long time. But it is not uniformly distributed around the globe. Significant economies such as the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and even Australia have been in lockdown and are slowly moving out of it. We are not certain where the future lies. Yet, there are a few better prepared economies such as Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong that have dealt with the pandemic much better. It is ironic that Taiwan, the world leader on pandemic management is not included as a full member in the World Health Organization!
We have heard also about the “unexpected” nature of this downturn. It has been labelled as a black swan event. According to Nassim Taleb a black swan event flows from the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events – and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively. For those in the science community looking at global warming and its consequences since the early 1990s, climate change and related health issues have been predicted. It’s just that very little has been done to prepare for them, even though there have been many scenario games and simulations held in our government bureaucracies and some businesses to stress test our capabilities. Some of those scenarios have looked like the ones we are going through now.
Last week I obtained an unclassified copy of a mobilisation review prepared for the senior leadership in defence. It was completed in June 2019. I knew work on mobilisation was being done in defence. In 2012 I was the facilitator of a closed workshop of international and national experts who examined nuclear issues, mass migrations, Pacific relocation, Southern Ocean disaster, extreme weather, pandemic and Southern Ocean eco-tourism. A report of this workshop is included in the mobilisation review.
The broad findings of the review are:
The geo-strategic environment is more uncertain than it has been for many decades.
Defence needs to have confidence that its planning arrangements are appropriate for the contemporary context.
While considerable defence mobilisation has occurred at lower levels since the 1998 lead up to operation Interfet there has been limited consideration of formal planning for large-scale, (including national) mobilisation since the Vietnam era or the need to mobilise in less traditional ways.
Despite an extended period of ADF operations since the late 1990s the mobilisation impact on the Australian economy and population has been limited to a narrow element of defence industry and some employers of defence reserves.
In the detail of the review there is much food for thought. For example, in the global engagement workshop we considered the drastic measures needed to deal with the consequences of a pandemic. Prescient as it was, this review stated in 2019 that “the World Health Organization (WHO) expects a significant pandemic to emanate from Asia in the next 10 years” and noted that a “key area of concern is the availability of pharmaceutical supplies” because 90% of all Australian supplies are imported.
But given our current experience it is clear that going through the review in the context of preparedness would begin to reveal the extent of work needed to overcome weaknesses and the vulnerabilities exposed by it, not just by the defence department, but by a whole-of-government look. This action would represent only a start. We cannot afford to go on as unprepared as we have been over the past 18 years. It is time Australian governments started to take notice of experts and listened to the people.
Australia’s geo-strategic future is very uncertain. Our national character and will are likely to be challenged in many new ways. The bushfires and fire storms of last summer were met with an unacceptable lack of preparedness, despite several rural fire chiefs having tried to get the federal government to hear their well-founded concerns in April 2019.
The warning about cyber security vulnerabilities set out in the review must also be taken seriously, especially in the context of unconventional cyber warfare and the potential for negative effects on social cohesion.
As well as improving national security domestically we should also consider the limits on Australia’s ability to shape the kind of world we would like. By 2050 we will be about 40 million people living with neighbours numbering 3.5 billion. Nearest to us, Indonesia will have a population of about 330 million, and PNG about 14 million people, although there are in-country predictions of about 30 million in PNG – more people than in Australia today.
We can only guess at how the contest between the major powers such as China, India and the United States will impinge on us and the decisions we will need to make.
We have an opportunity now to set right the ship of state by being highly analytical, ruthless in our judgement and focused always on better outcomes for the future. It will be a pity if our current circumstances fritter away Australia’s standing in the region. We have much to offer, but we desperately need to start turning our minds to what the next 30 years should look like. This is where the mobilisation review and documents like it present a good place to start, if only they could see the light of day.
• Chris Barrie is a former Australian defence force chief. Since then he has worked as consultant, teacher and mentor at Oxford University, the National Defense University in Washington DC, and the Australian National University
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