If you were to ask Australians, what are the greatest risks to the nation over the next 10 years, what would they say?
Overall, a long list of concerning scenarios would emerge - some more likely or concerning than others. Many would require a societal, or at least a government, response to avoid or handle.
Let's ask the government the same question. What would they say are the greatest risks to the nation over the next 10 years?
Unfortunately, there would be a confused and hesitant answer.
There would be separate responses from the security establishment, the emergency management folk, the economists, the health specialists, and every other part of government. And each would think their risks are the most important. Because there is no list - no centrally analysed and agreed set of risks. Which means there is no strategic approach to managing risk to the country.
Instead, federal agencies and states and territories are playing whack-a-mole with the next crisis.
The Australian government cannot expect to ward off, or prepare for, these risks if it can't even agree what they are.
COVID-19 was the perfect example. For years, pandemic experts warned of such a scenario. But policymakers failed to heed the warning partly because there was no mechanism to analyse and prioritise the risk against all the other risks governments think about.
That's where national risk assessments come in.
National risk assessments are a regular process that governments take to understand the risks that would harm the nation as a whole. They follow a systematic methodology: identify all the possible threats and hazards, outline the scenarios that would reach a national scale, assess how likely that would be, and prioritise the risks. At least seven countries conduct similar processes, including the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
Australia is missing out. It has never conducted a national risk assessment. When Labor was last in government, it conducted a national security risk assessment. But that covered only malicious or security risks, such as terrorism and espionage. A proper process considers all hazards and threats.
If performed well, a national risk assessment could be a very powerful resource for the government and the public. It would help increase Australia's shared understanding of the risks the nation faces.
Ultimately, it would help move the country away from crisis-response-mode into thinking about and preparing for the future.
But doing it well is difficult. And if done poorly, it could misguide leaders towards focusing on the wrong risks and fail to warn them of underrated dangers.
The government can learn from the experience of other countries. To be effective, any national risk assessment must be rigorous, inclusive, independent, transparent and well-governed.
Right now, multiple risk assessments are occurring across government, including for climate change and for health.
The challenge is how the government can join the dots between departmental silos considering risks. As important is the question of how government communicates this work with Australians - so that we might be part of creating our best future.
Australia needs a proper national risk assessment. The methodology needs to be robust. Experts need to be engaged. The public needs to be informed. And it needs to be legislated so that the process is ingrained and repeated. Australia faces one of the most turbulent decades in its history. A hot war, economic turmoil, environmental collapse, social upheaval - all are on the table. Before the next crisis hits, the government must take the lead.
Assess the landscape. Identify key challenges. Seek opportunities for change. Find a path forward. And start to navigate the country to a future in which we can all thrive.
- Dr Arnagretta Hunter is a physician and the human futures fellow at The Australian National University.
- Rumtin Sepasspour is a visiting fellow at the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet). They have co-authored a new report, "Australia's national risk assessment: perspectives and recommendations from risk and resilience experts".