Building a more resilient nation

| March 23, 2021

This is an edited summary of John Blackburn’s keynote address presented at the ‘A Vision for Australia 2020’: GAP Virtual Summit on National Resilience.’

GAP and IIER have worked together to explore national resilience this year in the context of COVID-19. The world is now less secure and more confused than before, but if Australia assesses and addresses its risks and vulnerabilities in an open and integrated manner, it can improve its capacity to face future challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the nation’s collective failure to assess and prepare for emerging risks in a rapidly changing world. While Australia reacted quickly to contain COVID-19, and the efforts of everyone, from frontline health workers and local communities to state and federal governments as well as industry and unions, should be applauded, we remain vulnerable to a range of potential crises.

IIER-A has promoted constructive suggestions for building a ‘next generation economy’ and a more resilient society as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent IIER-A workshops have involved over 160 participants from Australia and abroad and discussed resilience in the fields of health, energy, the economy and trade, food and water, information systems, data politics, the environment, education and research. They have also explored more fundamental issues in the Australian culture, including growing complacency and declining public trust.

The workshops examined where Australia stands now and where it should aim in the future, rather than focusing on COVID-19 itself. Australia, as an island nation at the end of long trade routes, is particularly vulnerable to global trade disruptions.

We came to rely on low cost, just-in-time international supply chains, but COVID-19 exposed their low tolerance for loss and disruption and demonstrated the speed with which domestic and international cohesion can fracture when stressed. The nation must acknowledge that its security and sovereignty depend on collective as well as individual resilience in the face of growing economic, environmental and military threats.

Concerns about a global pandemic were raised for years, yet Australia had only 2,000 intensive care beds when COVID-19 struck, 25% less than the OECD average for a nation of its size. Australia imported 90% of its medicine and nearly all its PPE, while maintaining no mandated minimum stock levels of crucial items, in sharp contrast to Nordic nations.

Policy makers have assumed that the market will provide for every need and circumstance, delegating national resilience – and therefore sovereignty – to international traders. This laissez-faire approach has been exposed as inadequate in the most uncertain global circumstances since the Second World War.

The ability for domain experts to share their knowledge must be improved, as they are often constrained by fear of offending ministers, employers or bureaucrats, while public reports are watered down by media advisers.

The IIER-A workshops have provided a rare opportunity for unfettered knowledge sharing among peers. The breadth of knowledge in this Summit, the IIER-A workshops, and Australia as a whole, should be mobilised in pursuit of better alternatives.

Australia is also hampered by the dearth of links between different government departments and sectors such as education, workforce research and industry policies. Government lacks an integrating function which can understand and address the complex interactions between different parts of our society.

We remain wedded to an industrial age business model however much we advocate AI and Industry 4.0, but this antiquated approach cannot manage the growing complexity of our society and the world around us.

Participants were offered three key characteristics which society must improve to strengthen its resilience. Shared awareness of, and brutal honesty regarding, the threats we face is a prerequisite of rational preparation, although the media will demand that every problem is addressed immediately.

National and international teamwork is required to solve the complex challenges we face, and while the National Cabinet was a good start, this should extend to closer relations with New Zealand and the Pacific as well as other allies. Finally, the unprecedented nature of potential challenges will not excuse remaining unprepared for the future, and civil society should learn from military preparedness models to improve its approach.

Australia should not attempt an impractical return to the pre-COVID model, but capitalise on the positive aspects of our response such as social solidarity and the initial federal-state collaboration.

Reforms to address the fragility of our supply chains, deficiencies in health infrastructure and other measures are also required. IIER-A will recommend that these measures become part of a national resilience framework, strategy and action plan to help people adapt to changing conditions, prepare for possible crises and recover more effectively.

IIER-A aims to offer a safe, confidential venue for frank discussion, information sharing and political risk assessments and to share these insights and recommendations with decision makers and the public.

This will be accomplished through an independent National Resilience Institute, funded by philanthropy, federal and state governments and industry to demonstrate their joint commitment to work together for the common good. The IIER-A will also adapt defence preparedness concepts and systems to address societal resilience issues for use at all levels of society.