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Australia’s Defence Well Prepared, But ALP Would Make Us Vulnerable: Hill

This is the text of the speech delivered by the Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Hill, to the 2004 Federal and Queensland Convention of the Young Liberal Movement, in Surfers Paradise.

Transcript of speech by Senator Robert Hill.

HillGood morning.

The Liberal Party has long distinguished itself from Labor and the other political parties by its cool-headed appreciation of the importance of national security. In contrast to Labor, the Liberal Party is not divided on ideological grounds. We will put Australia’s interests first but will not turn out back on friends and allies. We will tackle problems head on rather then hope for the best. Providing national security is the first priority of government. To do this we need to understand the security environment that we inhabit.

Developing this understanding is not easy, particularly in an age of transition.

There are two major points that I wish to make at the outset. First, our changing security environment is not just a matter for strategic theorists. These changes are real, they have burst upon us with unprecedented speed – and with shocking ferocity. As a consequence of recent events, such as the spread of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the growth of transnational threats we, have found ourselves involved in conflicts that have a global dimension, but very local consequences.

The second is that strategic change is a consequence of social and technological change. We are witnessing an exponential rate of change in both of these areas. Consequently, it is likely that the pace of strategic change will continue unabated.

The Howard Government has made a realistic appreciation of the changing security environment the basis of its whole-of-government approach to strategic policy-making.

To provide greater security for Australians this Government has made necessary adjustments to Australia’s national security architecture and to our mechanisms for multinational security cooperation. However, it is important that the community recognises that the dynamics of change are ongoing and that further adjustment and new responses will be necessary. This morning I will discuss the implications of change for Government security policy and I will outline some of the steps that we are taking to provide greater security in the future.

The pace and implications of strategic change

We inhabit an uncertain world, one that is perhaps no more dangerous than it has ever been, but one in which we do not know what new horrors tomorrow might bring. Until recently our historical experience was that conflict between countries was the main source of insecurity. Now, and increasingly, insecurity is the product of terrorist and criminal activity or conflicts between ethnic or religious communities.

Consequently, as we face a world of new actors, new ideas and a frightening potential for destruction many of the old ideas about national security do not apply.

The single theme that characterises the security environment that we will experience over the next decades is uncertainty. A responsible Government can only meet this challenge by monitoring the contemporary security environment; by cooperating with countries that share the same concerns; by rebalancing capabilities and priorities to meet changed circumstances; and by maintaining a flexible, mobile and ready defence force that is able to achieve outcomes for Australia.

You will be more than aware of the conditions of insecurity that have governed our way of life since September 11, 2001. It took the events of that day for many people to take seriously al-Qaeda’s declared war on pluralist, liberal democracy.

That harsh lesson was once again brought home to Australians with the brutal Bali bombings on October 12, 2002. The threat of terrorism has entered our everyday life and now shapes where we may go, how we travel and what we may do.

You will also be aware of the dangers posed by the proliferation of cheap weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missile delivery systems. Weapons that were once confined to major powers that had too much to lose by escalating conflict, may now belong to marginalised states with fundamentalist and irrational agendas. However, the global war on terror and the threat of weapons proliferation represent only the most prominent sources of strategic uncertainty. Globally, and in our immediate region, we face dangers posed by the potential disintegration of states, the re-emergence of violent ethnic or religious conflicts, the international spread of organised crime, the illegal and destructive misuse of environmental resources and the unregulated movement of populations.

In a globalised world we are also vulnerable to attacks on the international economic infrastructure and on the information networks that underwrite every aspect of our daily lives.

We cannot afford to ignore these issues.

We may no longer face the immediate prospect of war between the Superpowers, but we need to prepare for the greater complexity of our age. When we consider the problems associated with providing security for Australians we must accept that security is a far broader concept than it was when the major concern was inter-state war. This is a challenge that will be passed onto tomorrow’s leaders. There are no simple solutions to the problems of our world – strategic planning must be sophisticated, flexible, adaptable and have access to a broad range of force options and non-military capabilities.

Losing the protection of strategic isolation

Perhaps the greatest shock of recent events has been that the one great constant in our past strategic thinking – geographic isolation – has been considerably diminished. The ‘tyranny of distance’ has been both a benefit and a curse in our history. In the past the lack of shared land borders and the existence of the air-sea-land gap around our shores provided us with some immunity from the security problems of continental states.

Unfortunately, in the age of global terrorism and faced with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction we are no longer immune from the security concerns of our friends and neighbours.

Even if Australian territory does not come under direct attack our national interests will be increasingly affected by conditions of global insecurity.

Perhaps most tragically, the Bali bombings graphically demonstrated that Australia’s interests and citizens are represented offshore.

We are a nation of people who go out into the world – to work, to play and for personal enrichment. We cannot pull up the drawbridge and expect that the problems of the world will pass us by.

Australian security will not be well served by a strategy of denial. Instead, Australia requires the ability to project its national power to provide security and to help shape the strategic environment that we inhabit. This imperative may involve operating close to home, but sometimes – as so often in the past – it may mean sending our forces further afield to places where our vital interests are engaged.

However, we must also accept that there are limitations on our ability to influence events.

The lessons of our history are that Australia rarely acts alone. Nor would we usually want to. Whether using our power for humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, or to fight a war we usually act in coalition with other countries.

Consider just the major operations that the Australian Defence Force has been involved in over recent years. We have conducted peace operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomons.

We have assisted on numerous humanitarian relief operations throughout our region and afar – Niue and Iran for example.

We proudly participated in removing a base for terrorism in Afghanistan and we assisted in the enforcement of the Security Council’s mandate in Iraq. Some thirty-four countries now contribute forces to establishing the rule of law in Iraq.

These are the actions of a Government that is fully committed to helping shape conditions of regional and global security so that all Australians can live their lives free from fear.

Australians are fully engaged members of the global community and our security interests are intertwined with all humanity. While change has deprived us of some of the protection afforded by our geography, it has reinforced our sense of the interdependence of legitimate states and reinforced the need for building greater levels of security cooperation.

International security cooperation

No country possesses the full suite of capabilities and personnel to be able to conduct the full spectrum of operations that are necessary to meet all the challenges of our contemporary security environment. Even the United States has found that to prosecute the war on terrorism it needs the support and cooperation of Governments and agencies everywhere. Consequently, countries must cooperate if they are to make headway.

This imperative poses challenges – particularly in the areas of ad hoc coalitions of the willing and international inter-agency counter-terrorism cooperation.

There is no easy answer or quick fix to the task of working with often very dissimilar forces. We are fortunate that we can establish high levels of interoperability with traditional allies and friends such as the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada. With many of our regional neighbours we have built bonds of trust and friendship during recent operations in Cambodia, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. A major asset arising from the changed strategic environment has been our close and long-standing relationship with the United States. This relationship provides Australia with a force-multiplier effect far beyond the potential of our own resources.

Territorial defence is our first priority but while circumstances of regional and global insecurity persist, Australia must also contribute to regional and international security. Australia’s interests are best served by maintaining our close association with the United States, by contributing to regional stability with our neighbours and by engaging with the international community.

Australia’s commitment to countering weapons proliferation

One aspect of contemporary insecurity has been the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of cheap, readily available missile delivery systems. While Australia does not currently face the threat of attack, countries possessing these capabilities are continuing to develop them. Diplomacy and international cooperation are at the forefront of our efforts to stop the spread of these weapons. But we must be prepared to defend ourselves if talk fails.

It would be negligent for an Australian Government not to prepare for circumstances when we might come under threat. We would also want to be able to support our friends who might come under attack. Strategic planners do not have the luxury of hindsight. The use of such weapons against us is not inconceivable. To anticipate and to deter attacks on our deployed forces or our citizens we need to identify potential threats now and take steps to prevent them from becoming a reality. That is why Australia is fully committed to supporting the international Proliferation Security Initiative and why we have agreed to participate in the US missile defence program.

And it is why Labor’s silence on the PSI is puzzling and why its rhetoric on missile defence rings hollow.

Our forces have recently been involved in Exercise Sea Saber, a multinational interdiction exercise in the Arabian Sea, designed to hone our ability to cooperate to prevent the illegal shipping of weapons of mass destruction. Working in such broad coalitions to defeat or deter the transfer of WMD or the precursors to WMD adds real strength to the diplomatic arm of non proliferation. We will continue to be involved in these exercises. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.

It is the same with our decision to participate in the missile defence program which recognises the very real dangers represented by the prospect of tactical and strategic missile attacks.

Australia has a vested interest in the success of the program. The ability to deter or, if necessary, intercept a hostile missile launch is a defensive measure that reduces the value of states developing and deploying these systems. In this way it will make an important contribution to regional and global stability. It is not in our interests for the United States to be reluctant or to hesitate to support its allies in our region because it feels under threat of missile attack.

Building a whole-of nation security architecture

While international cooperation is vital, we have also upgraded Australia’s internal security architecture to deal with contemporary requirements. It should not be forgotten that the Defence organisation is only one part of a coordinated whole-of-nation national security infrastructure.

Responding to the increased threat of terrorism, the Howard Government overhauled the nation-wide cooperative framework. This initiative led to the creation of the National Counter-Terrorism Committee which has been active since November 2002. The Committee continues to coordinate Commonwealth, State and Territory efforts to counter terrorism and its consequences. Australia’s largest ever national multi-jurisdictional anti-terrorism exercise will be held in March. Titled Mercury ’04 this exercise will involve senior Ministers from the National Security Committee of Cabinet, senior members of the public services and Commonwealth and State-based agencies including Defence. These exercises will train our people and test our ability to respond to a range of emergencies.

Our military forces can provide only some of the capabilities required to deal with the many security concerns that face us today. It is important to recognise that effective interagency cooperation is essential to deal with the multi-dimensional forms of security issues that we face. The ADF – together with intelligence organisations, police forces and other agencies – provides a layered security as the most effective response to today’s threats.


Too many commentators on the changed security situation give themselves over to bleak forecasts. This is not the Government’s position. In many ways we are better off than we have been in the past. We are not facing a conflict on the scale of the World Wars. We do not face the prospects of a massive nuclear exchange. No country threatens our shores as in 1942.

But we do face known threats and increased uncertainty.

To meet this changed security environment we are now well prepared.

Australia has been one of the leading countries engaged in building an unprecedented level of international cooperation against the common threat of terrorism. We are further advanced than most countries in our more efficient and coordinated national security infrastructure. We have excellent intelligence resources and capabilities.

Our armed forces are second to none and have proved this on multiple operations in recent years. We recognise that our armed forces must provide a much wider range of capabilities than in the past and are therefore providing them with the equipment, training, personnel and balanced force structure to do the many and varied tasks we ask of them.

The alternative

This year Australians will judge the Government and Opposition on national security credentials. So far Labor has responded to its ideological split on US national missiles by saying “no”, despite the consequences of leaving Australia’s interests vulnerable. On the issue of participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative Labor remains silent. Debate at its national conference on this critical international effort to defeat or deter proliferation will be another test. By contrast we will be getting on with the job – of doing all that is possible to not only secure Australia and Australian interests against conventional threats but also the unconventional threats of the new security environment. Thank you for your attention, I hope that I have provided you with some food for thought, as you commence your deliberations this weekend.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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