Bill Armstrong: National security through community engagement. Fail to honour people and they will fail to honour you. (Lao Tsu 2000 years ago)

Aug 20, 2022
People Community
Image: Wikimedia Commons

We are living through a change of era on planet earth. Huge changes are ongoing. There is no doubt that the recent federal election gave a mandate to the incoming Government to RESET the way we do business at many levels.

There has also been much talk of late about our national security, due in particular to the growing power and interest of China in our region. Most solutions proposed concern trade, aid, defence and building our relationships at the highest political level. While these are no doubt necessary there is one area that has been neglected for many years and yet does form a basis for any long-term relationship we may seek with the other countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

It is essential that our Government help the people of Australia and Australian community groups to strengthen and build relationships with the people and communities in the countries of our region. National security requires not only improving government-to-government relationships but also people-to people and community-to-community relationships. Our national security is tied to the security of all the people in the region in which we live and it is therefore important that we know these people and are demonstrably willing to work with them.

Australians have for many years demonstrated their concern for what is happening in the world through substantial contributions to overseas aid via community-based organisations. For more than half a century, Australians have given practical support through their voluntary service to work in overseas development programs.

Regrettably, rather than grasp this great opportunity to build on, multiply and add value to this community effort, recent government policy has focussed on contracting community organisations as service providers for government programs. The trend has been to apply competition policy rather than encourage cooperation.

The Quiet Australians

This confines community organisations rather than enhance their capabilities. It also denies the Australian community opportunities to respond directly to the needs of communities overseas and therefore build direct relationships with our neighbours. It wastes opportunities to engage in a way that develops understanding of the world we live in. It fails to reverse the growing trend to rely on a disengaged public not to notice while some of the most important issues of our lifetime and the future of our nation are navigated. It ignores the incredible wealth of knowledge and experience embodied in these community organisations.

Our previous PM often referred to the “Quiet Australians” as if they were his supporters. However I believe his government policy was to actually create quiet Australians. There is no doubt that the policy was aimed to silence any attempt to question government policy or programs. In recent times, the role of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC) restricted community organisations by threatening their freedom to speak, by undermining their right to protest or lobby government for change, and so causing unmanageable levels of administrative burden.

It is pleasing to see that under the new Minister this is likely to change.

National security through community engagement offers an alternative to more and more expenditure on defence and the pre-emptive strike model. Many Australians want a Government that shows faith in its own people to assist in a peace process based on community-to-community relationship building. And more than that – they want a Government that is prepared to support and encourage community initiative in this regard.

While our wealth and our experience may be important in assisting us to build relationships, the way we engage in and share these relationship these will have much more influence than how much we give and how much we control. More participation and commitment from an Australian community that understands the purpose and value in building long-term international relationships become essential elements of our national outreach.

This in turn requires strengthening ways of encouraging people-to-people and community-to-community relationship building. In this way, we work together to overcome poverty and conflict. The people of Australia need assistance and encouragement to know their neighbours better and to build genuine relationships at the community level.

This can be achieved through mechanisms whereby we acknowledge the contributions being made by those people and groups in our community who are already committed to building partnerships with our neighbours. This will provide them with appropriate support to enable, multiply and add value to these activities. This work relies on more than just the wisdom of the Government bureaucracy.


The vision and challenge outlined above could be achieved without significantly adding to the existing aid budget. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that we are now at one of the lowest ebbs of all time in the percentage Australia gives in overseas aid, even below that of smaller economies such as Hungary (0.27 per cent). Reallocation of a modest portion of existing foreign aid resources could help build a participatory model of securing Australia’s future. Beyond Government budget resources, this challenge requires vision and trust in the Australian community.

In 2003 Bill Armstrong was made an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO) For service to the international community and the provision of overseas aid relief through Australian Volunteers International (AVI), and to fostering greater understanding of different cultures and raising awareness of social justice and human rights issues.”In 2000 he was the recipient of the Sir Edward Weary Dunlop Asia Medal, “In recognition of his significant contribution to forging stronger relations between Australia and Asia.” He was CEO of AVI from1982 to 2002, President of ACFID 1993-97 and Co-Chair Community First Development 2007 to 2019. 

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