Opinion: the case for a national preparedness agency

By William A. Stoltz

Tuesday June 16, 2020

A sample of the potential challenges that lie ahead for Australian governments and policy makers in the light of IPCC 6.
A sample of the potential challenges that lie ahead for Australian governments and policy makers in the light of IPCC 6. (Leonid Andronov/Adobe)

Australia’s national security and intelligence agencies are among the best in the world. However, recent national crises, namely the coronavirus pandemic and the 2019-20 bushfires, have demonstrated that there is a gap in our nation’s capacity to foresee and prepare for catastrophic events.

This gap has been created because Australia has established its national security institutions to predominately address military and state-based threats as opposed to the natural and human security crises that will characterise our future. Consequently, to address our new security environment, the Australian government should institute a new national preparedness agency that can chart the course for a more resilient Australia.

It is common for those engaged in national security and crisis management to consider threats and risks in the context of the following phases of activity: ‘prevent’, ‘prepare’, ‘respond’, ‘recover’. Each of these phases require a distinctly different set of actions, and a given threat or risk — be it terrorism or a bushfire — will move back and forth through these phases as it evolves.

Some threats will demand activities from across all phases simultaneously. For example, to address terrorism, the Australian government runs deradicalisation programs (prevent), has fortified public spaces (prepare), deploys tactical police to combat terrorist incidents (respond), and engages in post-incident reconstruction and rehabilitation (recover).

Unfortunately, however, Australia is not adequately postured to address the great national crises of the 21st century. This is because we have over-prioritised developing response options for largely military contingencies at the expense of undertaking national preparedness activities to address the natural and human security disasters that will characterise the crisis landscape of this century, crises that the RAND Corporation calls “threats without threateners”.

Most people have a good sense of what is involved in response and recovery — things you can do in the immediate wake of a crisis to reduce and address harm — but preparedness is less well understood. Establishing strong national preparedness involves having a vigilant and open perspective to the long-term dangers of the future, prioritising these dangers, and then undertaking actions that mean the nation will be resilient and adaptive when crises occur — something Nassim Taleb calls anti-fragility. Unfortunately, truly national preparedness planning is not something Australia is doing.

By far the best preparedness planning in the commonwealth occurs within the Department of Defence. Defence is a highly strategic organisation with a vigilance to the long-term challenges to Australia’s well-being and international position, so it continually monitors the range of contingencies that threaten Australia and assesses what actions may be required to make Australia more resilient.

However, Defence quite naturally prioritises those threats and risks that can be addressed through the application of military power. So, even though, as the ABC has reported, Defence is identifying the threats posed by non-military contingencies it does not have the remit or resources to fully advise the government on national preparedness planning. Nor does it have the full scope of preparedness intelligence to conduct this planning.

Those intelligence agencies with a primary purpose to support military activities (the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Australian Geospatial Organisation, and Australian Signals Directorate) understandably have a predisposition to be vigilant against military and state-based threats, as opposed to the pandemics, natural disasters, and human security crises that we know will be prominent threats to national and international security. As a result, Australia’s military establishment — the best preparedness-planners we have — is not structured or disposed to recognise and prioritise the full spectrum of threats and risks that we can expect.

Some may respond to this by observing that Australia has non-military intelligence agencies and organisations like Emergency Management Australia, law enforcement bodies and the various state emergency services. Yet these organisations are primarily concerned with supporting response and recovery activities that address and mitigate the destructive and harmful effects of crises after that have happened or begun to happen. Australia therefore lacks an agency that has the remit and resources to conduct national preparedness planning and is empowered to advise the government on the long-term policy responses required to make Australia more resilient before crises occur. Ideally, a national preparedness agency would have a remit to assess information from across government in order to conduct comprehensive preparedness planning.

When we think about building Australia’s preparedness planning for things like future pandemics, natural disasters, and cyber-attacks, the ‘front-line’ of these crises will not be a neat battlespace that can be controlled by a federal agency, but it will be amongst the homes, businesses, and institutions that comprise all levels of Australian society, and the first responders will comprise local, state, and federal bodies alongside private organisations.

Thus, building national resilience to these crises will not just require expensive national security capabilities, but it will involve coordinating actions across many different policy areas. For example, if we think about the actions Australia may need to take to prepare for another pandemic, we will have to consider a range of things that fall outside the traditional security space — like the durability of our supply chains, how we educate Australians, and how we regulate the economy. A national preparedness agency could generate the strategic advice Australia’s leaders need in order to build a more resilient nation that is exposed to less harm when crises occur.

With the creation of the national cabinet, Australia now has an optimal decision-making body to consider truly national preparedness actions, as these actions will naturally transcend jurisdictions and require strong commitments from state and federal governments. Our new security environment requires truly national preparedness planning, and the time is right for the government to create an agency that can take up the challenge.

William A. Stoltz is a former preparedness intelligence analyst at the Department of Defence and is currently a non-resident fellow at the National Security College, ANU.

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