Cyber security intangible enough to fit Gillard's agenda
Prime Minister Julia Gillard visits the Cyber Security Operations Centre at the Defence Signals Directorate in Canberra on Thursday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Sometimes it's necessary to look beyond the headlines, which is why, if you want to understand this week's National Security Statement, it pays to dissect the motivations of the key players.
Start with Kevin Rudd, because the whole thing was his idea to begin with. There were no great demands from within the rest of the party to present a yearly statement letting us know how safe or dangerous the world was. But Rudd understood the power of set-piece announcements. He knew he could use it as a platform to bludgeon the rest of the party - or at least those members who didn't share his concept of the importance of national security - into accepting his shovelling extra money towards the security apparatus. The statement began its life as a lever to ensure Rudd could achieve his particular agenda.
When Julia Gillard inherited the office she had no particular need for his baby, but any inclination she may have had to abandon the statement was quickly quashed. It offered her an opportunity to assume the mantle of legitimacy it would confer and allow her to shape the security agenda, so there was no choice really. The PM had to announce something - but what?
Prime Minister Julia Gillard presents the National Security Strategy at the Australian National University's National Security College on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Cleverly, Gillard seized the opportunity to articulate Labor's case, but this was where things got tricky. The trouble is the government has actually slashed defence spending back to levels not seen since 1938, so the problem was how to discuss a policy area that had been drained of funds.
The answer would require both a straightforward assertion that government policy was working and a deft refocusing of the debate. This week's statement delivered both in spades. It's uncertain who had the original ''light-bulb'' moment, although whenever something goes right in her office communication director John McTernan's name always gets mentioned.
The brilliance of Gillard's speech was twofold. First, she tackled the main issue - the rise of China - head on. After all, this is the issue everyone's focused on.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Graeme Dobell analysed her speech and found 40 mentions of the US, 30 of China. The reassuring implication of the simple numerical arithmetic is obvious. China is rising, yes; but, there's no need to worry because our powerful ally, the US, will continue to stand with us. That's why the bulk of the document takes the form of a quick, comfortable look around the region, anchoring Australia firmly in the US camp, and providing reassurance there's no problem on the horizon.
The obvious corollary of these findings is that there's no need to boost budget allocation to defence. The result, of course, is that money will be available for other important (Labor) projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski review of higher education.
No surprises there. This doesn't, though, mean the statement actually tackled what's really happening in our region. Our closest neighbour, the increasingly powerful and dynamic Indonesia, was referred to a little more than 20 times.
There was even less about the unstable Pacific island states that arc across our northern approaches, yet this vital region is being convulsed with change. Not that you'd know that from listening to what Gillard said.
So, what does this tell us? Well, that the statement is dissecting the present rather than attempting to peer into the future. The message was all about reassurance.
The statement wasn't attempting to alert us to changes. Nor was it an attempt to provide a blueprint for managing the new security environment. However, Gillard's office realised straight reassurance, by itself, wouldn't be enough to sustain the statement. Something more needed to be added. That's where cyber-security came in. This has provided the threat that's enabling Labor to legitimise its claim to be trusted on national security. And the reason for this is obvious.
First, the threat is real. Most households are connected to the internet. This means most people have had personal experience of computer problems ranging from trolling and scamming to denial of service and deliberate attacks and hacking. It is a real and present danger. Promises to act on this today overwhelm vague descriptions of potential threats in the future.
That's why the day after Gillard delivered the statement she visited the cyber-security hub at Russell. The pictures from the ''pit'' tell the story - a real war is being fought every day. Just because this can't be seen doesn't mean the threat can be dismissed. The other advantage for the government is there is no need to specify any detail about the battles. The operations in this clandestine war must necessarily remain secret.
We've got no idea at all how many assaults have been launched or how effective our defences have been at repelling them. This is a war where there can never be any transparency. For people at home the message is simple. If the internet is working, it means the government must be winning. And that allows Gillard's government to be seen, quite correctly, as being ''strong on security''.
It also means the opposition has been outflanked. Their emphasis on the need to spend more money on the armed forces will resonate with Coalition supporters, but it is unlikely to win over converts to the cause. The statement has succeeded in broadening the definition of security. The Liberal Party has always been perceived as being the party best able to manage threats to the country. There's no way the government can challenge this, particularly at a time of fiscal stringency.
Kim Beazley was the last Labor leader who attempted to identify the party with a security agenda. He did this by commissioning the Collins Class submarines - a mixed success at best. Gillard's foray into cyber-security is a far better bet politically. It allows the government to demonstrate its credentials at a cut-price rate. We can expect a great deal more about these sort of non-traditional threats to our security between now and the election.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer