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In January 2013, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched Australia's first National Security Strategy. It arrived at a time of emerging technology, shifting alliances and the push-pull of whether to rely on the US as a key ally, or to prioritise greater diplomatic and defence partnerships with neighbouring nations in the Asia Pacific, especially in the face of China's increased bullishness in the Red Sea.

While her predecessor Kevin Rudd’s government had issued a National Security Statement in 2008, that document was highly rhetorical and largely dependent on UN cooperation. The 2013 strategy honed in on our regional priorities: what Australia was currently doing, the end result, and the optimal means to achieve them.

The 2013 National Security Strategy was quite comprehensive and many of the focus areas – cyber security, cooperation between federal and state security agencies, and enhancing defence agreements with our Asia Pacific neighbours are still priority areas in 2024.

Between April 10 and 14, politicians, academics, and industry converged in Canberra for the National Security Conference event, ‘Securing Our Future’, presented by the ANU National Security College.

The conference proposed to answer how national interests, values and identity can be harmonised in the true spirit of democracy. Rather than political rhetoric, or academic essays that only other academics will read, the conference intended to describe how theory and research can translate to short and long-term practical strategies, inclusive of the domestic challenges, and those of the broader Asia Pacific region and beyond.

Senior Policy Advisor David Andrews joined the Policy Engagement team at the National Security College in July 2022, following roles in the Australian Department of Defence. His expertise is in security cooperation, including ANZUS, AUKUS and Five Eyes, and the role and efficacy of international security agreements. Part of his role in ‘Securing Our Future’ was to record video interviews with guest experts, which will be made public over coming weeks.

“We were trying to ensure that the speakers represented a broad sweep of Australian and international perspectives of the diverse range of national security threats that exist, whether that is bigger regional geostrategic challenges and questions of national resilience, democracy and statecraft, as well as specific capability outputs in terms of the workforce, types of industries and departments within the country.”

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David Andrews, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Security College

The current state of play

“Over the last couple of years, there’s been a renewed interest from public commentators on the prospect of a new national security strategy,” Andrews says.

“That 2013 strategy still reflects a lot of the core underlying challenges we face. Whether it’s from people at the National Security College, other think tanks, universities, former government officials, there’s been reflection on the need for a new national security strategy.

“Anyone can write a strategy, but when it comes to making it work through government and through the public service, you need to focus beyond the document on implementation. That’s one of the areas where strategy didn’t work so effectively in 2013. How a new government might construct a new national security strategy could be entirely different to 2013. It would make sense to have someone responsible for implementation, whether by appointment to the public service or whether that’s a minister, that person would have to be backed by government 100 percent. We could look at a model like in the US, where that person is an appointment of the president, and works within the executive rather than the bureaucracy.”

Since 2021, Jake Sullivan has been the National Security Advisor of the United States, reporting directly to President Joe Biden.

In the past five years, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of climate change on food security and sovereignty, and a Trump presidency have thrown national security for all nations into the spotlight.

In Australia, this resulted in the 2023 Defence Strategy which was updated and made public on April 17 2024, and a restructured National Security Committee of Cabinet, newly inclusive of the Energy and Climate Minister. The July 2024 NATO Summit in Washington poses an incentive for Australia to clarify its National Security Strategy before Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is due to attend.

In the meantime, the latest National Defence Strategy 2024 reaffirms the government’s commitment of an additional $5.7 billion over the next four years and $50.3 billion over the next decade in Defence funding. This will result in the Defence budget growing to more than $100 billion by 2033-34.

Global allegiances shifting

In the second week of April, the US, Philippines and Japan held a summit, merely a month after Chinese ships deliberately collided with, and blasted a water cannon into, Philippines Coast Guard Vessels.

As an island nation, surrounded by water, the sovereignty of neighbouring nations and their own defence and security are inevitably elemental to Australia’s security.

“One of the challenges is that a lot of the countries in our region don’t have the same strategic culture as us. Australia, the US and the UK have had a similar shared strategic culture and history and it is no accident that we’ve been involved in similar deployments around the world. We’re conscious of securing maritime commons and maritime trade, the flow of goods, which is vital to our continued existence,” Andrews says.

“Looking at Southeast Asia, where the economic size and population is to our immediate north, while we have close relationships to those countries, the notion of security pacts and alliances is not necessarily something they’re interested in. We have a longstanding partnership with Malaysia and Singapore through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) [which also includes the UK and New Zealand] established in1971.

“That’s grounded in the geographic, cultural and historical nature of being parts of the Commonwealth, but also our particular interest in Australia of seeing the strategic value of the Malacca Straits.”

The Malacca Straits are one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, located between the Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (or South China Sea). Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore control the Straits, which are increasingly experiencing piracy affecting global trade, especially of oil and natural gas. As the main maritime trade route between the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the Middle East, disruption to trade and transport through the Malacca Straits is both a commercial and a security risk.

Legislating Australia’s national security

Underpinning Australia’s national security framework, including what information is protected, and what can be disclosed, in criminal and civil proceedings is the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (NSI Act).

Section 47 of the NSI Act requires the Attorney General to provide an annual report to Parliament relating to non-disclosure and witness exclusion certificates, special court orders and special advocate appointments made in control order proceedings. The most recent report (October 2023) reveals no certificates, orders nor appointments were made in the two years to June 2023. The last record of a non-disclosure certificate under section 38F was issued by then Attorney General Michaelia Cash in the David William McBride v Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions matter in the ACT Supreme Court.

Former military lawyer McBride pleaded guilty to sharing stolen commonwealth information with ABC journalists, which resulted in an investigation (“The Afghan Files”) that exposed war crimes by Australian soldiers. It was deemed that the release of key evidence may potentially jeopardise “the security and defence of Australia”. His sentencing began in the ACT Supreme Court today, 6th May.

Other key legislation relating to national security includes, but is not limited to, the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Criminal Code) which addresses terrorism, treason and espionage. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 determines the extent of ASIO’s powers to obtain warrants, conduct surveillance, and to detain and question persons assumed to have information regarding terrorist activity.

“Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to national security: internal and external, which includes treaties, alliances, and multilateral organisations,” Andrews says.

“Internally, we need well-structured systems in terms of responding to threats of disinformation, misinformation, threats of economic sanctions or tradecraft [espionage] in Australia, responding to political challenges and seeing off the rise of political extremism, and the polarisation of the electorate effectively and quickly.

“Generally, governments are challenged everywhere to keep up with regulation of technology, cybersecurity and interference … the malign actors who don’t have restraints on their behaviour will push harder and further than government can keep up with, and legislation can take a long time to get through parliament, which is the nature of democracy.

“What people are looking for in a national security strategy is recognition of the broader regional threats, and that goes beyond the military sphere. The Defence Strategic Review came out last year and in the next few weeks, and just recently the National Defence Strategy has been released, which is focused mostly on what the ADF can do. Ideally a national security strategy would provide an overarching perspective beyond the military.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong told the conference that diplomacy in tandem with military capability is at the core of national security.

“Diplomacy frames the calculus that each country faces,” Wong said.

“Diplomacy signals intent, credibility and even red lines. The new concept of National Defence, underpinning the inaugural National Defence Strategy, comprehends that as we seek to maintain peace in our region, our nation’s front line is diplomacy … as international trends continue to go in the wrong direction, Australia’s coordination of our military, diplomatic, strategic and economic power, our ability to reassure partners and to deter threats becomes ever more important.”