A national interest strategy, including national service, is our best path to security.

The current global polycrisis — a cascade of entangled emergencies like climate change and energy security, pandemics and global supply chains — is not only stretching our world but the very notion of what constitutes security and the national interest.  

The reality of today’s world is that when sorrows come they come not only in battalions.

And while some of the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic may be easing the same cannot be said of the cascading consequences of the climate emergency. They are just beginning, for Australians and for all.

Meanwhile, other threats to social cohesion, democratic institutions and the multicultural identity of modern Australia may be down but certainly not out: terrorism, racism and conspiracism keep our security agencies very worried indeed.

It’s high time for a national security strategy or more precisely a national interest strategy. Several respected voices are making a similar call.

This could look at how to integrate security with other vital dimensions of the national interest — prosperity, cohesion, sustainability – and with principles of Australian identity: equity, inclusion, dignity and democracy. It should take a long view focused on how these goals can reinforce one another.

For instance, world-class educational opportunities for Australians should be an overwhelming national priority: whether the fundamentals of STEM or the newest technologies, critical thinking and civics or understanding our Asia-centric region of the Indo-Pacific in a changing world. Education is the most profound intergenerational investment we can make in true security.

A national interest strategy should also be about preparedness for what we know will be a disruptive and confronting future. We don’t know what tribulations will come, but we know they will.

The true value of a strategy would be a narrative for leadership to ready the whole nation — across political lines, federal borders, the private sector and into our diverse civil society — for the tough decisions they will need to share. It’s about preparing our people for testing times.

The Australian people are witnessing a world of disruption — COVID, climate, great power tension and now military aggression — and they deserve an honest national conversation about what it means for their security.

Within the next decade, Australia will not credibly be able to provide for its security without radical changes to our thinking about whose job it is.

That means more open communication about this new world of risks and our national choices.

We need a national narrative that reflects the rights and responsibilities of all parts of this country — business, states and territories, and everyday Australians — in working together for making this country secure, now and for the generations ahead.

In the years ahead the real risk of strategic confrontation or even war in our region, means the concept of national mobilisation needs to become an accepted part of community thinking, and not some quiet bureaucratic plan that our political elite would rather not frighten the voters with.

The extraordinary speech in Sydney by the Prime Minister of Finland was a reminder that some progressive democracies are far ahead of Australia when it comes to thinking about how to share security responsibility across the community.

Finland, population 5.5 million, has a trained military reserve many times the size of our own, a private sector deeply integrated into crisis preparedness, executives and parliamentarians educated in security as a matter of course, stockpiles of medicines and other essentials, a pathway to energy self-reliance and net zero by 2035 built into its societal security strategy.

And it does this with a lively, pluralistic and civilian-led public sphere, proving that for a nation to look after itself it does not need to become Sparta.

Within the next decade, Australia will not credibly be able to provide for its security without radical changes to our thinking about whose job it is. It is only a matter time before some form of national service needs to be considered.

This would be nothing like the rightly rejected conscription of 50 years ago, but rather an opportunity to build a national reserve trained and available in the wide range of skills needed for crisis response or national resilience, whether during climate disaster or wartime.

In the private sector and the public service, we should think about national interest responsibilities as more shared and less siloed.

The hard fact is that we are a middle-sized power and that means we need to be efficient and effective: we can no longer waste time and resources by not attempting a strategy, or making the best use of our extraordinary people — the minds we need to engage for a truly secure Australian future.

Security is a state of mind that reduces our anxiety by engaging confidently with risk. To have a chance of being secure in the long run, we have to accept risk now and pay the price of preparedness. If as Australians we want to live our ethos of no worries, then our worries are precisely what we have to brace for, whether our leaders are ready to show the way or not.

This is an edited extract of Professor Medcalf’s 2022 Order of Australia speech, ‘Making sense of national security’. Read the full speech here.

Top image: Royal Australian Air Force aviators assist with sandbagging during Operation Flood Assist 2022-2, in Swan Hill, Victoria. Photo: Corporal Cameron Pegg/Department of Defence

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