Michael Wesley. The Dangerous Politics of National Security.

Jun 20, 2015

 Policy Series

In January 2013, as she launched her government’s National Security Strategy, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard proclaimed that Australia’s decade of terrorism was over. Her argument was that al Qaeda had failed to regenerate after being degraded in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and that there were other more conventional security issues, such as the rise of new Asian great powers, that would dominate the forward security agenda. 

It was a bold call; and in the close aftermath of attacks in Paris, Ottawa, Montreal, Copenhagen, Sydney and Belgium, clearly a mistaken one. But one can admire her intent: to make clear calls, establish clear priorities, and place the management of national security within a clear, predictable framework. Gillard’s intent has not only been mugged by reality; it’s been overwhelmed by an inexorable muddying and politicization of the national security space that should be of concern to all Australians. 

It’s easy to be seduced by the parochialism of the present, but in recent decades our security policy has become tangled in a proliferation of security vectors and actors. Once security referred to defence from attack from without and subversion from within; now security can refer to a broad and widening array of concerns: pandemics, climate change, natural disasters, asylum seekers, water shortages. The acme of this process was Kevin Rudd’s national security statement to Parliament of 2008, which adopted a truly all-hazards approach to keeping Australians safe. 

The problem with applying the concept of “security” to everything is that eventually it will signify nothing at all. We have long realized how bureaucratically potent the word “security” is: a security threat is by definition existential, and therefore trumps all other policy concerns in the battle for cash, staff and bureaucratic priority. The result is a proliferation of people and government agencies responsible for national security and governments that lurch from one security preoccupation to another. Casualties along the way are an increasingly febrile media and a public that is both cynical and defensive. 

Of course our politicians have not missed the powerful political capital that national security can build. John Howard showed all his successors just how potent a well-played national security hand can be. The result has been a national security politics that is at the same time supine and pointlessly partisan. On the one hand, oppositions are petrified of criticizing the national security posturing of the government in the wrong way at the wrong time and being forever labeled “soft” on national security. On the other, they wait like coiled snakes for the slightest whiff of government gaffes or mismanagement of the national security space. The result is a national political debate that is utterly incapable of holding governments to account on the vital substance of national security policy, but poisonously partisan and divisive at the edges, where it doesn’t really matter. 

Meanwhile, in the tangled thicket that has become the national security space it is almost impossible to develop a clear sense of proportion and set of priorities. Quite simply everything slightly menacing or tragic becomes framed in a national security logic, with screaming headlines, solemn pundits and instant intelligence briefings. Governments that have played the “strong on security” card can’t afford to look slow or cautious in their responses. In a world where everything is of the highest priority, governments are finding it harder and harder to set priorities and make hard choices. How does a government plan a defence budget when Islamic State and China’s assertiveness and asylum seekers are of the very highest priority? How does it design a legislative regime when cyber crime, homegrown radicalization, Chinese espionage, foreign fighters, transnational crime, and opposition to the death penalty are all non-negotiable issues for the government? 

In this frantic atmosphere government and community seem to have lost sight of exactly what it is that national security policy is designed to keep safe. Speeches and policy documents stolidly set out what our core national values are – safety, prosperity, independence, freedoms, cohesion – but there is little sense in the day to day waging of national security that there is much awareness of the careful balance that needs to be struck between security and the fundamental values it is meant to be keeping safe. When for example the government discusses the stripping of citizenship from Australians who fight in Syria and Iraq, who is asking the questions about the effect of this on community cohesion and on Australia’s international role in playing its part in dealing with the transnational phenomenon of radicalization? 

One shouldn’t think that all of this is having no impact on public attitudes and opinions. Indeed there is a remarkable bifurcation developing, between the educated elite that is increasingly cynical about national security, and partial to hysterical conspiracy theories; and the majority that is demanding a tougher and tougher government response by the day. The result is small-mindedness among both groups: an unwillingness to contemplate different opinions among the former; a defensive xenophobia and intolerance of difference among the latter. Along the way, observe yet another paradox: despite the fevered security consciousness of the public, governments of both sides that seem unable to adequately explain national security measures and build public support behind what really does need to be done. 

Finally, national security is changing the very structure of our Westminster system of government. It is hard to have watched the past two decades of national security policy and to deny that there has been a steady “presidentialisation” of our government, mainly under the impetus of national security. The Prime Minister’s Department has grown inexorably, as has the office personnel. There are very few issues even vaguely with a security tinge that the PM is not centrally involved in. He or she has direct personal relationships with the heads of all of the national security, policing and intelligence agencies. Apart from growing power and personnel, the presidential prime ministership demonstrates its sway by structuring and restructuring national security agencies: creating, spinning off, merging and co-ordinating in a dizzying display of apparent urgency. There is no one to think about and caution over the effects of this on the logic and effectiveness of these changes to a presidential prime minister. 

It is hard to watch all this and be comforted that we are safer, more cohesive, and secure in our values as a result of these trends. One wonders whether it is any longer politically feasible to put an end to this bipartisan rush for the national security mantle. If anyone is, here’s a few pointers. First, security is not an all-hazards policy space, it is about existential threats. Other issues are important, but they are not security issues and should never be framed with that logic. Second, security is a powerful but dangerous logic. Any discussion of security must include strong and reasoned debate about the balance between security and the values it is seeking to keep safe. Third, acknowledge that the national security structures and agencies have kept us safe for half a century: leave them alone and let them do their jobs. Fourth, the PM’s office and department have a legitimate role in national security, but it should never be a central, directing role. And fifth, nothing is more security-eroding than a sense of constant panic; and nothing more security-building than a sense of calm resolve. 

Real leadership, on both sides of politics, must begin with an acknowledgement that national security policy is important and potent, but ultimately dangerous to the values it seeks to protect, if not handled in a considered, calm and non-partisan way. 

Michael Wesley is the Director of ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs


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