For years now, disasters and stressors, natural and otherwise, have tossed Australia about. Like a swimmer trapped in dangerous currents, we are at the whims of untameable forces and exhausting ourselves trying to keep afloat.
Lurching from one emergency to the next is no strategy. And the extent of our outlook cannot simply be the next COVID strain, China gripe, bushfire season or severe flood.
This new government is an opportunity to adapt to a new model of governing risks to the nation. One that anticipates and prepares.
Looking to the horizon, Australia will face wave after wave of challenges. Strategic competition. Technological disruption and insecurity. Economic inequality. Worsening climate change and environmental harm. Complex security threats. Global health challenges. Resource depletion.
Aussies need confidence that, during tough times, they can look to the shore for help.
But there is no lifeguard on duty.
Many partners, like the US and UK, have preferred a national security advisor model - someone who supports the nation's leader on major national security and foreign policy decisions. However, Australia has had a mixed record with such a role. And security lenses are not the only kind of binoculars needed to monitor the waters.
What we prize as a country - health, wealth, security, community and freedom - are too tightly bound to fit into neat siloes. Prosperity versus security. Federal versus state and territory. Values versus interests. We must dispense with these awkward distinctions.
In the past two years, our greatest threats have come from an infectious disease, a series of natural disasters and economic coercion. Going forward, our social cohesion will be tested by economic inequality, synthetic information and political extremism. And emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence and biotechnology, will provide vectors for both risk and reward. These challenges require national leadership and innovative approaches.
The newly elected government can take inspiration from an already well-established model. The chief risk officer has been a staple of financial services for decades. After all, the job of any financial institution is to manage risk. Credit risk, primarily, but also cyber risk, regulatory risk, operational risk and business disruptions.
Since 2008, the chief risk officer has only gained prominence. Along with the chief executive officer and chief financial officer, they help steer the organisation. And their remit is only increasing to include risks from climate change, digital transformation and geopolitics.
We need a national chief risk officer to help guide the country. Much like a lifeguard, they surveil the beach, signpost danger, engage the community, provide safety advice and procedures, and, when needed, come to the rescue.
Reporting directly to the Prime Minister, a national chief risk officer would have a full plate. They would manage a national risk assessment, a process that identifies risks that could harm the whole country. They would develop and coordinate strategies to reduce and manage risk. They would engage with civil society and the business community about implementing whole-of-nation solutions. They would coordinate responses across the government when crises emerge. And, for major policy decisions, they would lead a detailed review that assesses the potential harms to our national interests.
Many parts of the Australian system may resist such a role. Federal ministers and First Ministers would not want their powers reduced or usurped. Emergency Management Australia would say their role is to manage responses to natural disasters. Later this year it will merge with the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, established to reduce the future impact of disasters. The security apparatus, particularly Home Affairs and the intelligence community, would claim it is their role to assess and manage security risk. State and federal health departments lead on pandemics.
But when everyone owns the risk, no-one does. And, in our increasingly complex world, new risks can arise suddenly and easily slip through these cracks. A sufficiently empowered chief risk officer would cut through this political and bureaucratic morass.
As we enter choppy seas, we need someone on the lookout. Someone to own risk and drive a national response. So that when Aussies want to enter the water, they can do so with confidence.
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