English historian Edward Gibbon attributed the decline and fall of the Roman Empire not to the invading barbarians but to the loss of civic virtue among its people.
Today, as tensions rise throughout the Indo-Pacific with China’s expansionist intent on show for all, a frank assessment of Australia’s resilience is overdue.
Part of the piece is to “very rapidly increase our military firepower”, as warned former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in relation to Australia’s perilous strategic circumstances.
On a recent podcast episode with the Institute of Public Affairs, Abbott drew historical parallels, saying “there’s a need for … a crash rearmament on the scale of what Britain did in the late 1930s”.
The former PM was responding to the recent announcement of a strategic review into the structure, posture and preparedness of the Australian Defence Force which has been welcomed by Australia’s strategic thinkers.
There is almost complete consensus: Australia is woefully underprepared for great-power conflict and must produce more serious firepower and quickly. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s defence review announcement hastened the pace, but it is a long race.
In the podcast discussion Abbott highlighted three crucial components for national defence: alliances, firepower and national resilience.
Alliances and firepower are obvious. “The one thing we’re not thinking about at all”, the former PM emphasised, “is the national resilience piece and that’s what we really need to be focusing on”.
National resilience involves safeguarding supply chains, securing our energy independence, stockpiling crucial resources and ensuring we have the means to function in times of great crisis.
However, the lesser-acknowledged, and by far and away most important, aspect of national resilience is cultural self-confidence and social cohesion.
The fundamental prerequisite for any national security and defence strategy is a citizenry who are willing to fight, endure and, if necessary, sacrifice because they believe their country is worth defending. Patriotism, of the humble and dutiful kind, is just as important as submarines.
Henry Kissinger, in his most recent book Leadership, points this out: “No society can remain great if it loses faith in itself or if it systematically impugns its self-perception.”
In 2020, the head of the ANU’s National Security College, Rory Medcalf, and cyber-expert, Michelle Price, argued that “the vital terrain for international security is now what happens at home … our guideposts to securing Australia in the 2020s include risk, resilience and responsibility”.
Senator Jim Molan, who has seen more war than most, has stated that national defence is a whole-of-society responsibility. In his new book, Danger On Our Doorstep, Molan asks whether the Australian people, if worse came to worse, would be “resolved as a society to prosecute a war?”
Of course, we cannot know until we are tested and Australians have a great knack for coming together in times of crisis.
But it would be naive to assume that decades of culture wars, identity politics, climate doomism and historical revision have not affected our willingness to endure the costliest of burdens – war – to preserve the Australia we know today.
The current iteration of the national curriculum does little to inform our children of how Australia evolved to be a thriving liberal democracy, enshrined with equality before the law, free speech and religious freedom. Instead, the curriculum emphasises the pitfalls of Western civilisation and explores Australian history through the narrow confines of colonisation, invasion and dispossession.
At our universities’ history departments, deconstructive social theory, which reduces everything to race, gender and ethnicity, reigns supreme. The latest manifestation is the Undoing Australia project at the University of Melbourne’s Australia Centre which seeks to radically recast and reject the political foundations of Australia. Such initiatives encourage dismantling our historical statues in order to rewrite history rather than understand it.
All of this has an effect. Many Australians have lost trust in political authority, traditional institutions are decaying and ideas of national identity are dividing rather than uniting. Earlier this year polling commissioned by the IPA revealed that barely one-third of young Australians surveyed believe Australia is worth fighting for. The nation we are today is the outcome of a long history of efforts, sacrifices and fidelities. Australia, for all its flaws, is a remarkably successful country with an extraordinary history.
Australia has welcomed those fleeing persecution; fed, clothed and powered millions of people around the world; and sacrificed to rid the world of tyranny.
We are far from perfect and there is work to be done. But what we have is worth defending.