Governments must move beyond traditional processes and partner with the rest of society to overcome the changing nature of national security threats, according to Department of Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo.
In a speech to the Australian National University’s National Security College on Tuesday, the senior mandarin warned that security risks have extended beyond human-initiated violence, citing the coronavirus pandemic as a prime example.
“Today, one of the most vital security practices in the face of the threat of COVID-19 is hand washing and good hand hygiene, a measure, with all due respect, which is far removed from the appearance and character of a complex weapon system,” he said.
“A view of security which is concerned exclusively with the administration of violence does not assist us to prepare for other dilemmas which might impinge on civil peace, such as a global pandemic or a potentially catastrophic geomagnetic storm, which could will occur at a scale which would render most electrified technologies inoperable.
“Who is the attacker in that latter instance, the sun, nature, or perhaps God Himself?”
He listed 25 current security threats, including “increased disaster and climate risks, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse,” supply chain vulnerabilities, cyber threats, and “uncontrolled mass migration, including as a result of civil conflict and or climate change”.
Pezzullo noted that “Islamist terrorist groups” have remained a major threat. However, echoing his colleague, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general Mike Burgess, he also warned of the rise of “fascist extremist” groups with “politically motivated violence, including armed groups which might be motivated by conspiratorially framed ideologies”.
Threats to Australia’s democratic institutions, foreign interference, political warfare, disinformation, the weaponisation of social media, declining trust in public institutions and “espionage against our decision making processes” were also dangerous, he warned.
“This is an apocalyptic list to be sure. Indeed, in relation to ways in which humanity might become extinct you will find arguable cases for the following scenarios, amongst others: a deliberately released, humanity-killing synthetic virus; super volcanic eruptions which block the Sun; the Terminator AI threat; a nuclear apocalypse; and, yes, the killer asteroid,” he said.
“Complacency is certainly not warranted in the face of this register, please don’t get me wrong, but nor is existentially pessimistic fatalism. An exaggerated sense of danger is positively harmful, as is the over application of threats. Over-arming the state is as great a danger as under-powering it.”
‘Extended state’ needed to overcome security challenges
With threats becoming “more distributed, more networked and more interconnected” than ever before, the traditional models of decision-making would not be enough, and security would need to be “designed into societal structures, institutions and systems”, Pezzullo argued.
“Security is more than the question of protection or of survival. It’s a question of how we should band together, and pool our capacities for living,” he said.
The secretary proposed an “extended state” approach to security involving the public and private sectors, with “government leading and guiding through a networked partnership with the rest of society”.
“Security is a shared responsibility, which should be designed into our plural institutions and processes, in order to ensure the resilience of the prosperity and unity of the nation, and its character as a free and open democratic polity,” he said.