Labor deploys ‘security’ to protect bad policy from proper scrutiny

May 9, 2024
Bundle of Australian fifty dollar notes in a red vice on a bed of one hundred dollar notes.

Politicians are increasingly using the word to justify bad policy initiatives and fend off criticism of their decisions.

I doubt if you’re waiting with bated breath for next Tuesday night’s federal budget, but since it’s the big set-piece event of my year I’ve started limbering up. I’ve set my bulldust detector to ping every time I see or hear the word ‘‘security’’. May I suggest you do the same?

We’ve been hearing a lot of that word lately, particularly from Anthony Albanese and his treasurer, Jim Chalmers. It comes with many adjectives – energy security, food security and, of course, national security – and with many spooky euphemisms: risk, strategic, sensitive, critical and sovereign, not to mention the spookiest of them all, terrorism.

In Albanese’s landmark speech on A Future Made in Australia, he assured us that ‘‘strategic competition is a fact of life’’. ‘‘Nations are drawing an explicit link between economic security and national security,’’ he told us.

‘‘We must recognise there is a new and widespread willingness to make economic interventions on the basis of national interest and national sovereignty,’’ he said. His government would be guided by three principles, the second of which was that ‘‘we need to be more assertive in capitalising on our comparative advantages and building on sovereign capability in areas of national interest’’.

His government would be ‘‘securing greater sovereignty over our resources and critical minerals’’.

Indeed so. When Chalmers announced the government’s new foreign investment rules last week, they seemed to be all about security.

‘‘By providing more clarity around sensitive sectors and assets,’’ Chalmers said, ‘‘our reforms will give businesses and investors greater certainty while safeguarding national security.

‘‘National security threats are increasing due to intensifying geopolitical competition and risks to Australia’s national interests from foreign investment have evolved at the same time as competition for global capital is becoming more intense.’’

The reforms to our foreign investment rules would ‘‘boost economic prosperity and productivity, while strengthening our ability to protect the national interest in an increasingly complex economic and geostrategic environment.

‘‘We are dedicating more resources to screening foreign investment in critical infrastructure, critical minerals, critical technology, those that involve sensitive data sets, and investment in close proximity to defence sites, to ensure that all risks are identified, understood and can be managed – balancing economic benefits and security risks,’’ Chalmers said.

And a bolstered foreign investment compliance team will use the minister’s ‘‘call-in power’’ to review investments that come to pose a national security concern.

My goodness. If you were the excitable type (which I’m not), you could wonder whether the economy is being put on a war footing. Or maybe Treasury has been taken over by Defence and Foreign Affairs. Or ASIO.

Of course, it may be that the government and its spooks know something terrible they’re not telling us. Perhaps some foreign enemy is preparing to do us in.

But if you’ve spent years studying the behaviour of politicians (which I have), you wonder if it’s something less life threatening and more self-serving. Is there an election coming up, for instance? Do voters have complaints about the economy that you’d like to draw attention away from?

The independent economist Saul Eslake says that, as the government seeks to use ‘‘national security’’ and ‘‘economic security’’ as a rationale for a major shift in economic policy, two things concern him deeply.

First, the tendency to use ‘‘security’’ as a justification for a policy initiative opens the door to interventions that are, in the infamous phrase of former Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry, ‘‘frankly, bad’’. Decisions that, without the ‘‘security’’ label, wouldn’t pass muster.

Second, grounding a policy decision in ‘‘security’’ gives politicians an excuse to shut down any questioning of the justification of that decision.

‘‘When governments say something is a matter of ‘national security’, they usually refuse to say why it is; that it would be wrong to allow grubby considerations of ‘cost and benefit’ to interfere with their judgments about ‘security’, or even that it is unpatriotic to question a decision made on ‘security’ grounds,’’ Eslake says.

It’s not the first time Eslake has expressed such concerns. Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in this august organ in late 2011.

‘‘If you want a government to do something that entitles you to some form of protection from competition (especially overseas competition), some kind of subsidy or tax break, or some other privilege not enjoyed by ordinary folk, but you know that your proposal wouldn’t pass any kind of rigorous, independent, arms length scrutiny … then your best chance of getting what you want is to succeed in portraying it as being somehow essential in order to enhance some form of ‘security’,’’ he wrote.

Sometimes I even wonder how AUKUS – the wisdom of which many defence experts quietly doubt – came about. How much of it was the Americans’ idea, and how much was ours?

What we do know is that, without any prior debate, Scott Morrison suddenly unveiled it as a fait accompli and great coup. Had Labor opposed it, we’d have been straight into a khaki election.

But Labor accepted it without demur and the costs or benefits we’ll discover in years to come.

 

Republished from The Sydney Morning Herald, May 8, 2024

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