Q&A: Julia Gillard’s national security strategy

The Prime Minister today outlined a national security strategy that aims to build closer links with Asia and toughen Australia’s cyber security defences.

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At the same time Ms Gillard warned that the budget for domestic security will only get tighter.

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asks Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, what the new strategy will mean for Australians.

This speech is really the first time we’ve heard Julia Gillard make a definitive address on the issue of national security – is this report overdue?

It’s been in the offing for several years to be honest; Prime Minister Rudd in late 2008 tabled a national security statement in parliament and said that this was going to become a regular thing. Since then there’s been nothing until the Prime Minister’s speech today and the release of her national security strategy, so it has been a long time in the making.

There was much mention of building stronger links with Asia, of maintaining strong links with the US and at the same time of the need to get ‘value for money’ from the national security budget. How difficult is it going to be for the federal government to balance these outcomes?

The budget issue I think is the most critical thing here because it’s clear from the Prime Minister’s statement that there’s going to be, as she describes it, a period of austerity in coming years for spending in the national security area, and frankly I think this is a problem. We’re sort of hearing in some ways mixed messages here. One the one hand, a message that the strategic environment is becoming more complex and more difficult, and on the other a message that there is no more money.

And, in fact, that there’s less money into the national security parts of government and this is a problem. I think the fact that the national security statement doesn’t really deal in precise terms with funding issues is a disappointment. And in a sense what that points to is the enormous difficulty that the government has in making decisions about what the right spending priorities should be.

The PM identified effective partnerships, cyber security and regional engagement as the biggest priorities for national security today. Are these the right priorities for Australia, in your view?

They’re all pretty obvious things. When she talks about effective partnerships I think she’s talking about a more effective integration of different parts of the public service and the national security community working together and these reflect in some way I think quite obvious priorities, but no less important for that.

Julia Gillard has certainly set her sights on cyber security in recent weeks and it was a big topic in today’s national security announcement. How serious is the threat of cyber-attacks for Australians?

It’s a real threat. I think it needs to be taken very seriously and what you see here is that clearly the government has seen a change between the Rudd statement of a few years ago and now. So I think that it’s appropriate more emphasis is given to cyber security. Of course with these things, the devil is in the detail. It’s not completely clear what this new cyber centre is going to do, whether it’s actually going to be involved in the nitty-gritty of cyber security — which is actually performed by a number of Australian agencies already — or if it has some sort of higher policy function than that. But on the face of it, it seems like a sensible initiative.

Have there been specific incidents that may have prompted more action in cyber security?

There’ve been a number, it is publically known for example the parliamentary computer network early last year had been infiltrated, and in the private sector I think there are many, many attacks against Australian companies, Australian banks, the resources sector; and government departments (who) regularly find their cyber security tested by maligned cyber activists seeking to infiltrate government systems. So yes, it’s a constant risk and it’s something that I think is only going to become more of a problem in coming years.

If we look at international comparisons, are there any cyber safety initiatives around the world that Julia Gillard might be looking to emulate?

Well I think within Australia’s closest defence partners the US, the UK and Canada to a slightly lesser extent, these are the countries which probably reflect best-practice in terms of cyber defence systems. In many ways both those countries have been investing more deeply in cyber – as we have — over the last few years. So this is a trend. I think increasingly now Asia Pacific countries are looking to do the same thing. If last decade was the national security decade, as Julia Gillard described it, maybe this decade will become known as the cyber security decade.

The federal opposition also made note of government cuts in this area.

Well I know the opposition has been making those comments, but they too are declining to make any commitment to increasing expenditure in the national security space. I would say both to the government and to the opposition that strategy without dollars attached to it is really wishful thinking. I think we have a right to expect better from both. The government and the opposition need to think harder about just what the right priorities should be for the national security budget in the coming years.

You mentioned earlier Kevin Rudd’s statement on this topic back in 2008. One issue the then PM targeted was climate change – something we also saw US President Barack Obama mention in detail in his inauguration speech yesterday. Do you think it’s significant that Julia Gillard has not referred to it here?

There may be other political reasons which is driving the Prime Minister’s approach on that. What I can say is one doesn’t need to describe the causes of climate change to realise the impact of climate change is one which does require a national security response. Be that domestically through bushfires and floods and through the region, it does look as though we have to deal with the consequence of an increasing number of extreme climate events and that’s going to be a cost to not only defence, but to state police and emergency management services. And if one sees that as part of the national security approach, then clearly this is something that has to be factored into funding and planning for the future.

Opposition defence science spokesman Stuart Robert also made a point of noting asylum seekers were not mentioned today. To what extent do asylum seeker issues constitute a national security threat?

Well I think partly the politics of asylum seeker issue has turned it into a national security threat, because the challenges and the costs of maintaining that naval and customs capability to track vessels is obviously highly expensive. It may well be that there are other more cost-effective ways with which we can deal with that particular issue. But certainly at the moment I think it’s fair to say that it has been cast as a national security problem.

What was missing from Julia Gillard’s national security strategy presented today?

Money. It’s big talk, but where are the dollars to make it happen? What’s clear is that the government is actually giving a lower priority to national security and you can tell that by tracking what’s happened to the budget in that area over the last few years. So it’s a bit of a tricky sell for the PM to, on one hand, state how just critical this is but at the same time deal with the fact that spending in this area has been reduced significantly in recent years.