MICHAEL McKINLEY. The present and future national security policy of Australia is to be found on the coast of Victoria.

Mar 8, 2019

National security will not be the determining factor in the forthcoming elections but it will get frequent redacted mentions for the purpose of injecting elements of fear and additional insecurity into the impoverished discussions it will attract. 

If the Prime Minister’s recent statements are indicative of the contours he wants to impose, an appeal will be made to what is known as comprehensive security but this loose embrace will quickly dissolve into a tight focus on refugees, violent extremism and counter-terrorism spiced with cyber-espionage. A theatrical spectacle resembling pantomime will then ensue, for a while anyway, before the conventions and precedents governing the treatment and discussions of the subject proceed to their logical conclusion in farce.

The national security debate has devolved over the years into little more than stylised performances for entertaining poorly informed audiences with schedules of threat and the ways to defeat them which are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and often absurd. It has a long tradition.

Just off Half Moon Bay, just a short drive from Melbourne, is the reminder of an early episode of nonsense – the collapsed remains of a vessel originally purchased by the Victorian government in 1867 and commissioned as HMVS (Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship) Cerberus until 1911, when its descriptor became HMAS. This was in response to the perceived threat posed by the post Crimean War Russian Imperial Navy which, incidentally, lacked seaworthiness, speed and long-distance abilities.

The choice of name – Cerberus – the three-headed guard dog of Hades in Greek mythology is, therefore, significant in the present context because it obscures a central feature of Australian security thinking – its predilection to reject all it can see in favour of the picture afforded by only part – a maximum of one-third – of its vision.

It is a wholly voluntary and inevitable form of Nelsonian discretion. The government reserves the right to proclaim the nature and level of the threats of its choice subject to three basic conditions: it must be sufficient to disturb any ambient feelings of security, it must be a threat that only the incumbent government can be relied upon to counter, and countering it must not require more that the almost standard maximum of 2 percent of GDP annually allocated to Defence.

If full vision was allowed – all three heads – the pantomime-cum-farce would cease to be produced. All associated with it would have trouble holding their place in the queues of the unemployable seeking Centrelink assistance.

If comprehensive security is the government’s catch cry and true objective, then consider what will almost certainly be absent from any description of Australia’s security problematic which is to be met with the designated resources, strategies and policies. In summary form it can be expressed as the State of the West’s – an existential crisis marked by at least ten out-of-control forces, or characteristics.

  1. Mass migration, on a scale that the governments cannot control and will not address the causes of.
  2. State failure and the transition to authoritarianism and fascism – frequently among Western allies and friends.
  3. A dominant alliance partner that is not only hostile to diplomacy and arms control, but determined on arms acquisition. At the same time its recent historical record is that of a bellicose, strategically inept, socially and psychologically sick plutocracy (or oligarchy, the choice is yours) which has elected a President who dismisses democratic oversight by the Congress as “bullshit.”
  4. Ever-present in one form or another, are climate change, unfolding environmental disaster, and species extinction.
  5. A burgeoning, grievance-fuelled multipolar rivalry which finds its worst expressions in the official documents of Australia’s dominant alliance partner as an acceptance of a permanent war complex in which imminent and total war against, inter alia, Russia and/or China is being pre[pared for.
  6. There is a New Great Game afoot in Asia, but also a “New
    Scramble for Africa” on the part of the great powers, one of which is both an
    enemy of choice for the United States and Australia’s largest market.
  7. Human decision-making time
    continues to be compressed, displaced; even obliterated by the development of
    hypersonic weapons and its replacement by robots controlled by algorithms or
    artificial intelligence.
  8. An evident disenchantment with democracy: it consists of part
    apathy and part loss of faith in democratic systems; it is globally distributed
    and very much in evidence in Australia.
  9. Neoliberal globalisation is dead, corporate dominance
    continues, and inequality is rampant and obscene. Contributing to this is a
    permissive attitude towards tax compliance which now tolerates between 8
    percent and 22 percent of the world’s household wealth being warehoused in tax
    Also in Australia, and as reported by the Australian Taxation Office, one in three companies (36% precisely) with income in excess of $AUD100 million paid no tax in the 2015-2015 financial year.  The comparison with an Australian citizen with a taxable income of $AUD58,000 is illuminating: such a person would pay $AUD10,627, or more tax than 685 companies which include the Nissan Motor Co. (Australia) Pty. Ltd (who paid $AUD476 on a total income of $AUD2 billion); the government-owned national airline, QANTAS (which paid $AUD0 on income of $AUD15 billion), and Exxon Australia Pty. Ltd (which also paid $AUD0 on income of $AUD8 billion).
  10. The global financial crisis of 2008 is still with us in the form of unchanged habits (in many cases) which created the mayhem in the first place, debt, and concentrated economic power but the measures which provided life rafts for a few a decade ago are now structurally unavailable.

Alongside these challenges Australia’s responses – a generally
successful counter-terrorism effort and the decisions to order future weapons
systems which meet today’s requirements, and which will cost in the region of hundreds
of billions of dollars – the discussion and debate over the next several weeks
is simply going to be impoverished to the point of being an abdication of
responsibility approaching betrayal. 

These weapons systems might lay claim to being state-of-the-art in
2019, but what about twenty years from now – when some of them will just be in the early stages of delivery?  We have to ask because already there is evidence that they are vulnerable to cyberattacks and what are touchingly called “emerging disruptive technologies.” Recommendation: breath should not be held pending an answer.

Quite apart from this, the preponderance of security challenges
cannot be addressed by a standard weapon – unless, of course, the plan is to
fight the war on poverty by lobbing grenades at the homeless. 

What is required is an extended engagement that is alien to politicians – specifically one in which they have to start with an admission that the issues are beyond their ability to control a fact beyond obvious in all respects.  This, however, is a fantasy which should not be entertained. It flouts convention. 

As a consequence Australia will once more adopt the Cerberus Protocol for debating national security policy: it will find equivalents to the Czar’s fleet and counter them with equivalents thought wonderful by the Victorian Government. Which is to say a recourse to instruments which imperil all on board once they sail beyond the confines of a sheltered bay. 

Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University


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