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One of the inherent problems with the Government’s national security agenda is its shopping list approach to national security.  Phenomena, both social and natural, are lumped in together.

Yet many of the problems now described as national security concerns are, at their heart, governance issues.  True, at one end of the spectrum—failed and failing states—governance and security are inseparable.  And policy-makers should always be aware that bad decisions have consequences for the safety and security of their citizens and the strength of their society.  But that’s what good governance is.

Securitising governance issues, rather than strengthening the government’s ability to respond and deal with them, can actually detract from national strength and security.  Securitising issues implies new rules and behaviours and measures of successful outcomes must be applied.

It redirects efforts to a more nationalistic approach, risking a bunkering mentality.

It implies supra-national problems can be solved by securing borders, favouring a garrison mentality.

It can become a self-referential practice—disease, for example, becomes a security issue not because a threat exists but because disease itself is presented as a security threat.

It is a reflexive response to the complexity of globalisation, rewarding inward-looking behaviours and controls as substitutes for government’s inability to tackle multi-dimensional trans-national phenomena.

And it rewards urgency—if it’s considered a security issue, it must be dealt with quickly, regardless of the cost—over the slower, much less sexy, evolution of institutions, people and societies.

These behaviours and understandings all distort measures of good governance.    Often the easiest and quickest response needed to ‘secure’ Australia is the one prioritised…and then the government’s attention moves on to the next urgent ‘national security problem’ competing for attention and resources.

Rather than securitising disease, for example, through prioritising border controls—an immediate and tangible response—more effort should be made to invest in the (long, slow) research needed for the new generation of antibiotics (for example), the (long, often slow) improvement of conditions, public health and alert systems in countries where pandemics are most likely to emerge, and the (long, often arduous) strengthening of international co-operation.

And surely climate change—predictions of imminent disaster, as per The Day After Tomorrow, aside; they rarely if ever match reality—can be handled through civilian planning and good governance rather than a fall-back to a short-term military ‘operational planning’ approach, as implied through use of a national security lens.

Similarly, responses to natural disasters—bushfires, for example, are frequent events in Australia—should be undertaken good, tested systems informed by research and reviews of best practice and past experience.  Where disasters exceed the bounds of those systems, then the military may have a role as part of disaster relief.  Again, a matter of good governance, not escalation to national security significance.

And so on.  Rather than indulging in hyperactive redirection every time a crisis hit, rebadged as a National Security Issue, it seems we’d all do better with a Bex and good lie down.

There is some good work being done coordinating national, state and territory systems, especially under the COAG process.  But few—there are some—good solutions are top-down, especially when they focus on control and are distant from the point of application or the communities concerned.  Much better to smooth the way, open debate and loosen controls, allowing new solutions to emerge bottom-up.  That will improve the chances for adaptation, rather than bearing the costs of imposition.

Bringing back the notion of public service as a virtue is hard in a short-term, media-driven, 24/7 world.  Still, resurrecting good education in the basics of a complex, modern Western society, including the trades, governance, systems administration, and IT and infrastructure development and management certainly couldn’t hurt and—who knows—may even help prevent some of those crisis, or possible crisis, flagged by the government.

And we need to think more rigorously about national security, and develop a much less flabby concept that lends itself better to understanding the relationship between issues, prioritising resources and developing sound governance.

January 2020
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