Last month Scott Morrison delivered ‘Our plan for keeping Australians safe and secure’ to the National Press Club. Not so much a headland speech as a report from the bookkeeper. Not FDR’s Four Freedoms address to Congress or Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri; the Prime Minister’s flat rhetoric avoided the big strategic issues that will confront future Australian governments. China was not mentioned. Nor was the US.
After opening with, ‘keeping Australians safe and secure is not just about discussing the great geopolitical tensions of our time’, Morrison went on to not really discuss the great geopolitical tensions at all.
That’s not to downplay the importance of the security issues he did cover; the global economy, foreign interference, radical Islamist terrorism, people smuggling, natural disasters; organised crime, money laundering, biosecurity hazards, cybersecurity, the evil ICE trade, violence against women on our streets, online predators, cyber-bullying, and elder abuse. Morrison is undeniably right when he states, these are his ‘national security and safety responsibilities to the Australian people’. As Greg Barton rightly observes, ‘national security has been defined all too narrowly in Australian political discourse’. However Morrison was too broad and too shallow. A light quantitative step across these multifarious challenges allows him to avoid the biggest issues.
Australia faces the most daunting strategic environment since the middle of last century. The US acknowledges that its hegemonic position is now slipping. The US is confronted with what it labels peer competitors in China and Russia. Since the Korean War Australia’s alliance with the US has been the core element of Australia’s security policy. Australia has followed the US into conflict after conflict secure in the knowledge these contributions would buy guarantees against major conventional military and nuclear threats. Under the new circumstances will the alliance still produce these benefits?
The strategic benefits of being a US ally in the Trump era are becoming increasingly problematic. The uncertainty surrounding the US commitment NATO is driving the Europeans to seek greater strategic autonomy as Russia becomes bolder and more belligerent. A situation made more dire for the Europeans with the collapse of the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) treaty.
Trump’s desire to withdraw troops from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Korean peninsula will is destabilising these regions and increasing the likelihood of more conflict, opening up strategic space in which Russia and China can manoeuvre. Initiatives increasingly done without consultation with allies and therefore undermining important strategic relationships. Does Morrison think these developments make Australia more or less safe?
America’s formerly unchallengeable strategic dominance in the Asia Pacific has been seen by successive governments as crucial to maintaining regional stability. Recent foreign affairs and defence white papers still argue this. Moreover, the closeness of the relationship with the US provided Australia with influence in the region. Are Australia’s interested and security interests served or adversely affected by the changes? What does the government think?
The historic shifts taking place in the international environment and the accompanying risks from the emergence of spheres of influence and great power competition came down to ‘Australia and our partners face diverse security threats that challenge our interests, from North Korea’s long-range missiles and nuclear programs, to state fragility, and radical Islamist terrorism in our own region’. An underwhelming analysis.
The former Treasurer in him still sees strategic policy as an actuarial matter. Defence spending was portrayed by Morrison as a competitive numbers game; with the focus on how much more Coalition governments have spent on Defence than Labor and how many more ships, submarines, fighters, and armoured reconnaissance vehicles they are buying. No strategic justification for this massive expenditure was offered. How does Morrison expect all this firepower will be employed?
He regurgitated the empty thought that, ‘We want to see an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific where the rights of all states are respected’. Morrison fails to say what he understands to be the nature and source of the threats to the rules-based order, or what Australia is prepared to do and how far it is prepared to go in response to these threats.
Somewhat mundanely, Morrison noted, ‘Economic strength and our country’s security are interdependent’ and that ‘Australia’s national security is also intertwined with that of the Indo-Pacific region’. Statements that beg the question, how will Australia balance its economic interests in the relationship with China with its alliance commitments to the US. This is probably the biggest challenge facing Australia. More significantly how does Australia protect its economic and strategic interests if the competition between China and the US becomes more confrontational or edges towards conflict?
Thomas Hobbes wrote that ‘all the duties of rulers are contained in this one sentence, the safety of the people is the supreme law’. Like Morrison, Hobbes believed that meant ‘that they be defended against foreign enemies, that peace be preserved at home, that they be enriched, as much as may consist with public security, that they enjoy harmless liberty’. He placed being ‘preserved from foreign and civil wars’ first among these duties.
The public deserve more than platitudes, commonplaces, and boasting from political parties competing for the job of steering Australia through the difficult and complex times ahead. As the world settles into a new set of great power arrangements, and does so as the destructive power of conventional weapons grows exponentially and the leash on nuclear weapons loosens, the voters deserve to know their politicians have an in-depth appreciation of the challenges. They didn’t get that from Morrison.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.