What if? Society's breakdown a winning theme in assessing threats

A bleak scenario of food riots as the country grinds to a stop due to a lack of oil after shortsighted government decisions, has won an inaugural short story competition about Australia's security nightmares.

Debbie Rudder's story, The Butterfly Effect, is a compelling narrative about societal breakdown as vehicles and aircraft stop running due to a shortage of lubrication oil.

''Who let Australia end up with no primary lubricating oil refinery?'' asks her central character, a small businessman struggling to keep his machines operating.

The Canberra-based Australian Security Research Centre ran the competition to help the national security community imagine contemporary threats.

Rather than just describe an avalanche of frightening events, writers were encouraged to focus on the consequences and challenges posed by their scenarios, and tease out what the official and public responses would be.

The centre says the power of scenarios should not be underestimated and that national security planning relies heavily on their use.


Defence has a highly classified collection of scenarios, called the Australian Capability Context Scenarios which reflect possible circumstances, under which the ADF might be employed.

Ms Rudder, from Maroubra in Sydney, took her title from the imagined failure of an oil refinery in Indonesia, leaving Australia at the mercy of one refinery in Singapore.

''[Foreign investors] have seen our weakness, how one butterfly valve flapping in an Indonesian jungle can lead to chaos across our nation,'' she writes.

''This country is learning harsh lessons about the importance of lubrication.

''The gas company has lost two-thirds of supply so gas is being quarantined for essential services.

''Pensioners are suffering and some are protesting loudly in the streets, in the media, in government offices. Others are dying quietly, cold and malnourished.

''Trucking companies are mothballing trucks, fire engines are grinding to a halt, ambulances are going out of commission, there's a run on the banks.

''People die in building fires or for lack of first aid. The skies and roads are quieter than ever.''

Fights break out in food queues and police are losing the battle with looters.

''Australia feels like a Third World country,'' the story's character says.

''The PM flies to the USA and begs the President to send some lube oil to his shortsighted she'll-be-right-mate Aussie allies.''

The centre's head, Dr Athol Yates, said Ms Rudder's story was given high marks for originality and plausibility.

It could be such a non-traditional security threat that could bring a nation to its knees, he said.

''While the threats from terrorists are now well integrated into national security plans, there are a host of other threats that pose major risks to Australia.

''These include pandemic out-breaks, global energy disruptions, food security shocks, civil society breakdown, and transnational crime destabilising entire countries.

''Some would cause small-scale disruption and deaths in Australia, and others would cause catastrophic loss of life and possibly even the collapse of the nation.

''The Australian Security Research Centre wanted to foster imaginative thinking so as to ensure Australia is better prepared to deal with the varied threats facing our security.''

Professor Helen Ashman, from the University of South Australia, said the entries in the competition indicated a growing concern about the perceived fragility of Australia's critical infrastructure.