National security has been a key policy of the Liberal Government since 2013.

National security has been a key policy of the Liberal Government since 2013. Image courtesy Flickr.

Towards a new Australian security

The importance of putting the right policies and priorities in place to tackle Australia's expanding horizon of national security risks.

First published in Advance, the Crawford School of Public Policy's magazine in April 2015. By PROFESSOR RORY MEDCALF.

Why think about Australian national security? Why, in particular, should we think about it anew?

Today's and tomorrow's Australia faces an era of change, uncertainty and fragility.

Our horizon of risk is expanding, as our connections with the world increase, including in terms of energy, resources, people, money and knowledge.

The world's centre of economic and strategic gravity is moving to our region of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Australia's interests are large and growing yet our capabilities are not keeping pace. So there is a premium on partnerships to guard our interests in an uncertain world.

Yet to have the best chance of building and maintaining the partnerships we need, we must also have the credibility that comes with doing our best to provide our own security.

The key question, then, is are we really doing our best? It can be argued that Australia continues to fall short of its potential as an effective security actor.

We are still in transition from the Australia of the past few decades: a country that has relied for its security primarily on the combination of a stable global and regional environment and a less demanding US ally.

Now the strategic environment is less stable and the ally more demanding, yet frustratingly less than clear about its own strategy or priorities.

Added to that, our own ability to set security priorities is being dispersed by worsening dangers of terror and radicalisation at home and worldwide.

Of course, a national security statement focused exclusively on terrorism is a misnomer. It is obviously incomplete.

Amid entirely justified present-day fears, we must not lose sight of truly strategic risks associated with China's rise and the Indo-Pacific power balance.

But how to set priorities? For instance: how to prioritise the immediate security threat of terrorism, the wider strategic problem of the changing Indo-Pacific Asian order, and dealing with longer-term trends like the security repercussions of environmental pressures?

The simple answer is that we need a layered response that deals with each problem on its own time-scale.

Nor should we imagine that all these risks exist in parallel worlds. They interact in ways we are just starting to understand. A common thread is the way in which they threaten order.

In acquiring our own new security capabilities, we need to be constantly looking for flexibility and adaptability.

Like it or not, devoting substantial resources to national security, broadly-defined, will need to be an accepted part of the Australian policy landscape for as far ahead as we can see.

The good news is that we have a reasonably good recent history of bipartisanship on key security issues, including the US alliance. 

Yet there is also a hidden fragility, a potential fragmentation of public opinion and political views, across much of the national security, defence and foreign policy agenda. For instance, the best ways to respond to terrorism.