08/04/2010 - 00:00

No security guarantees in the north-west

08/04/2010 - 00:00


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Australia is ill-prepared to deal with potential threats in the north-west

No security guarantees in the north-west

AT the height of the Global Financial Crisis, the federal government moved to guarantee bank deposits. Why? Because Australia’s citizens felt vulnerable about the safety of their cash assets, an important form of saving and a key resource for the nation as it sought to extricate itself from this international mess.

While most of us insure our homes and personal possessions from traditional threats, last month’s hailstorm and the recent roof insulation scandal show that there are always new issues to consider. Even last year’s bushfires in Victoria have made people in Western Australia reassess their own situation. No-one likes to contemplate such vital assets could be destroyed and most people will seek new ways to protect them as additional threats are recognised.

Any business worth its salt will have multiple layers of protection for its most sensitive data. Firewalls, outsourced servers, physical barriers and other layers of technological defence are employed at great expense to ensure this increasingly important business asset is safe.

Why? Because intangible assets such as client databases, human resources information, digital resource mapping and strategic planning documents often differentiate businesses that otherwise look much the same when it comes to physical assets.

These are just simple examples of the efforts we go to protect the things to which we have attached value.

It is interesting, therefore, to see the region that houses Australia’s most valuable assets has become the weakest link in the nation’s military chain of defence.

Last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan policy institute set up by the federal government in 2000, added its voice to calls for a bigger military presence in the north-west quarter of the country. Just as well-known demographer Bernard Salt pointed out a week or two earlier, the ASPI’s new report, ‘Our Western Front – Australia and the Indian Ocean’, reminds us that there is no significant permanent military base from Exmouth to Darwin. In fact, if you rule out the naval communication station at the North West Cape, there is nothing much north of Perth.

This is a vast area, which, until 50 years ago, was seen as largely valueless.

It seems this thinking hasn’t changed much despite the fact that something close to 40 per cent of the nation’s export earnings come out of WA, the bulk of that being iron ore and energy in the Pilbara and off its coast. And it’s growing.

Of course, technology has changed since World War II. Satellite surveillance, aircraft endurance, radar and submarine vehicles have all improved our ability to monitor and defend the most remote reaches of our continent and the waters we claim around it.

But the threats to our assets are changing too. We have newly awakened and resource-hungry nations to our north and west. Terrorism and piracy have shown that small groups of motivated people can inflict significant damage to infrastructure and economic lifelines.

With this in mind, I find it ironic that the federal government can contemplate usurping the states’ rights to royalties under its Henry Tax Review, which would inevitably result in more revenue being raised for Canberra’s treasury from business undertaken in the Pilbara.

One of the primary roles of the Commonwealth is defend the nation. Yet here we find another example of the national government trying to extend its reach, and revenue raising ability, while seemingly coming up short on what most would consider its priority.

The ASPI recommends the following modest changes in strategy.

“The ADF (Australian Defence Force) should plan to markedly increase its presence along the west coast of Australia between Perth and Darwin. This should involve:

• establishing a naval operating base in the north-west – in the longer term, this base should have facilities at least equal to those of existing bases in Darwin and Cairns;

• increasing the frequency of military exercises in the region; and

• making greater use of RAAF airfields at Curtin (Derby) and Learmonth (Exmouth).’’

Mr Salt and others before him, such as Future Directions International, have suggested much greater strategic investments, including a big military base in the region at a place like Broome, Port Hedland or Karratha.

There are problems with this idea.

The modern military co-exists with peacetime society and requires big nearby population centres to help with its human resources needs. In contrast, the Pilbara and the Kimberley are underpopulated.

Some proponents of population growth in the area believe that a big defence base would assist in creating the conditions for more people to move to the region. They see such a development as synergistic and cite a number of examples to bolster their case.

• Broadening the opportunities for service business currently reliant on boom and bust mining.

• Providing a new source of labour for resources companies via the families of defence force personnel.

• Becoming a catalyst for infrastructure investment in areas such as ports and tertiary education.

However, there is a chicken and the egg argument here regarding what should come first.

The military is unlikely to see its key role as a vehicle of economic development. The defence budget is tight enough as it is without spreading its resources too thinly, all in the name of population growth.

The counter argument to that is that the north-west already needs more military capability placed close at hand to protect our mighty natural assets and discourage any form of potential aggression, in whatever form that might take.

Part of that defence should be to counter any notion that the north-western quarter of the nation is empty and ought to be filled by anyone other than at Australia’s choosing. This sort of pre-emptive strike may not be a priority for the chiefs of defence, but the nation’s political leadership needs to recognise the relatively benign task of establishing a base in the region would have long-reaching strategic impact. It is not just about the guns, but the boots on the ground, including the families of servicemen and the many service providers they attract.

Given Canberra clearly values this region, it could start to think about protecting those assets adequately.




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