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Australia needs a national security strategy for the 21st Century

Recent revelations of attempted Chinese political interference, mobilisation of the Chinese student diaspora, cyber hacks and suspicious businessmen not only provide a wake-up call to the foreign activity ripe within Australia’s borders, but they resurface the demand for a national security strategy with a stronger stance on defensive capabilities and a clear strategic outlook.

With the rise of information communication technologies and the integration of cyber systems in our everyday lives, foreign interference has become more insidious and relatively easier for states to undertake. With it, insecurity is escalating and state legitimacy deteriorating as a rising global power, lacking mutual recognition of fundamental liberal values and sovereignty, and the upholding of a rules-based global order disturbs regional waters and the international system as a whole. What we are seeing at home is limited consensus on Australia’s future challenges with no strategic coordination.

Security policy in Australia has traditionally focused on an operational approach through defence, foreign affairs, and intelligence. These policies have reflected the global orientation of the operational approach to national security led by risk management, with the aim being to contend that any loss to Australia is, at best, tolerable.

With a broad range of services, policy, and regulation in place across Australia’s states and territories, consensus on what national security is in Australia has not been attained, with no Commonwealth strategy defining the concept.

This is the ultimate starting point: what do we, as Australians, understand to be national security?

The Government has dedicated a website to national security that addresses the current security climate, provides information regarding the terrorist threat level, media publications, various contacts, and access to all security-related strategies. There are sixteen publications addressing areas considered hazardous to Australia’s national security. And yet, whilst the website and the individual documents themselves address these areas, neither the website nor any of the documents explicitly state what national security is. They merely address relevant areas that pose a threat or aim to protect/defend/enhance it. For a range of documents leading government initiatives within the interest of national security this is problematic.

Disjointed strategies contribute to the deterioration of state legitimacy through uncoordinated and ill-defined individual policies, plans, and guides. The current disjointed approach presents to both domestic and foreign audiences as weak or unjustified. It has encouraged a rise in the exertion of foreign influence, furthering the processes of securitisation and, thus, it has impacted the aptitude of governance, especially in democratic liberal states such as Australia’s where civil liberty trade-offs are increasingly contested – dismissed as unnecessary.

A state’s legitimacy is determined by what is acceptable in the eyes of the public. Australia’s political system presumes that the government will act on behalf of its citizens. It is this relationship between the public and government that determines its legitimacy and, thus, its sovereignty. Legitimacy here is a demonstration of identity; that is, an Australian identity free from foreign influence. An overriding national security strategy, to align Australia’s individual strategies, will encourage legitimacy at the domestic and foreign levels, as well as demonstrate Australia’s strategic narrative to the region, the international community, and its own public.

It is time Australia determines what it understands national security to be: to consult the broader population on what it perceives to be of value and worth contributing to. Individuals have a critical role in twenty-first century security brought on by our connectivity online. With civil society being increasingly called upon to contribute to national security, such as identifying suspicious behaviour or reporting unusual activities, a strategy should further engage the Australian public.

In the drafting of the 2008 United Kingdom (UK) National Security Strategy, the UK Government made the effort to engage with members of the public, remarking that it was “the next step in a process of engagement designed to ensure that government thinking on national security constantly keeps pace with the rapidly evolving global security environment.” The Australian Government should engage with the public so as to garner and solidify an understanding of the values and interests of the twenty-first century, multicultural society. This, in turn, will promote an understanding of the mechanisms put in place to combat the potential threats we face and encourage support for decisions made in the face of adversity.

The nature of security and our regional environment has changed and so too must our approach. A national security strategy will communicate to our allies, neighbours, adversaries, and citizens that the Australian Government is proactive about its security. This loss of legitimacy has resulted in a loss of state authority; from this stems disengagement and distrust in the government, a key goal in foreign influence operations.

Madeleine Nugent is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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