Australia faces up to security challenges in maritime arena


Knowledge of the strategic situation of Australia in the last decade is important for understanding the evolution of the Australian response to security challenges - particularly maritime security challenges.

An island continent, Australia has no contiguous neighbours, nor does it have a major state power in its immediate vicinity. The landmass of Australia is just slightly smaller than that of the US mainland, yet its coastline measures 25,760 km.1 While the southern approaches to the continent are sparsely navigated, the northern approaches are inundated with maritime traffic through the strategically significant Strait of Malacca and South China Sea trade routes, as well as the Torres Strait that narrowly separates Australia from neighbouring Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Australia has 300 port facilities; however, only 70 of these are considered large enough to have significant security concerns.2 With a gross national product of US$528 billion (in 2003, compared with Canada's US$923 billion), Australia depends on unimpeded maritime waterways and port facilities in order to take advantage of a valuable US$180 billion maritime trade in mining and agricultural goods that accounts for 57 per cent of the country's goods and services exports.3 It generates 12 per cent of the world's shipping tasks.4

Australia traditionally depended on UK and then US maritime protection in the South Pacific region. "Australia's size, its isolation, sparse population

and limited financial resources have made security difficult to even contemplate achieving alone… However, although reducing the feeling of vulnerability, this reliance on allies has tended to inhibit the development of strategic independence," commented the authors of a research paper published in 2002.5 Nevertheless, the latter half of the 1990s witnessed a more assertive stance by the Australian government to secure the country's own national and regional interests, plus a desire to participate in the larger strategic maritime environment.

Three major events during the last decade have drastically altered the Australian outlook on security and defence concerns. These events have been described as the 'three posts' in Australia's progression towards a more independent and assertive stance on national security,6 and consist of: the post-1997 Asian financial crisis period; the post-11 September crisis period; and the post-Bali crisis period. It is interesting to note the Australian government's response and, in particular, the debate on national security priorities that ensued after each of these events. The significant legislature and government organisational changes that took place are integral to an understanding of how the Howard government dealt with changes to the global security situation. These responses have led the Australians to several unique approaches in their maritime security and intelligence strategy.

Pre-11 September 2001

During the 1990s the Australian government became aware of increasing international organised crime that included 'people smuggling', and it thus began in earnest to devise ways to control the ingress of humans and goods into Australia. The lead-up to the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 also played an important part in focusing the government's attention on security and intelligence vulnerabilities.7

In the same period, "the financial crisis that afflicted much of the Asia-Pacific region in 1997… reversed confident expectations of Southeast Asia's prosperity and resilience". Due to severe economic strains, the Suharto regime in Indonesia came to an end and a period of democratisation was ushered in that witnessed violence in East Timor and doubt about Indonesia's national integrity. Indeed the arc of instability to Australia's north and northeast served to "reduce Canberra's confidence in the security of its own environment".8 Accordingly, the government assigned the investigation of these areas of concern over security to The Joint Committee on The National Crime Authority, which met throughout 1996 and 1997 and produced a seminal report in 1998.9

One particularly animated exchange during these hearings helped to initiate the creation of a post-modern, 'integrated' government security and intelligence environment in Australia. On 5 December 1996 Raymond Kendall, the Secretary-General of Interpol, was asked to observe on the "traditionally perceived interface between national security issues and criminal justice issues".10 He responded: "It is true that international co-operation, particularly in relation to terrorism, can be complicated by the fact that you are not just dealing with a police matter but you are dealing with an area where the security services are involved. We have allowed ourselves to get into some difficulty… in terms of co-operation between the interests of the security service, on the one hand, [which] may not necessarily be the same as, and are very different from, those that would be normal for… the criminal police side of things.

"We all recognise that if you want to deal with the problem of international terrorism you must exchange as much information as you possibly can relating to the activity of terrorists… I believe that, as soon as you have enough information about somebody, that should go into my public's, the police public's [sic] circuit so that you can make it as difficult as possible for these people to be able to move. Their names should be given to all people at airports, they should be given to immigration services, they should be given to the services which are dealing with the provision of visas and things like that, so that their movements can be restricted to the utmost."11

The Joint Committee took this testimony to heart, as well as Kendall's emphatic point that "the key issue in the lead-up to the Olympics is prevention and… every effort should be made to ensure that information of a preventative nature is freely distributed between relevant agencies, even to the point of removing legislative barriers to such free exchange"12.

In its final report, after noting that neither the Australian intelligence agencies nor the police agencies had a habit of mentioning each other in their annual reports, the committee made a landmark recommendation: "That the Australian government take steps to ensure there are no legislative barriers which would inhibit the free flow of information and intelligence between security and law-enforcement agencies."13 The government "accepted the principles underpinning" this recommendation14 and went on to form Australia's "whole-of-government approach" based on the underlying ideas.

The period before 11 September 2001 witnessed a number of administrative amendments to legislation and organisational changes across government that followed the Joint Committee's trend of thinking.

In 1996 the government strengthened the existing National Security Policy "through a renamed National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC) with a wider field of activities".15 Somewhat ahead of its time for a parliamentary system and highlighting the importance that the government places on security, this committee, chaired by the prime minister, integrates top-level intelligence, law-enforcement and defence decision makers at the table in order to consider the full range of domestic and international security concerns. It is "the key policy decision-making body for the government's response to such issues as border security, the East Timor crisis in 1999, counter-terrorism and, more recently, the Bali atrocity".16

Under the "true all-of-government"17 leadership of the NSCC, the Australian government promulgated a number of significant pieces of security-oriented legislation such as:

  • the Telecommunications Act 1997, which obligated service providers to assist government officials in safeguarding national security;

  • amendments to the Australian Federal Police Act 1979 in 1997, which loosened the issuing and use of listening devices for appropriate government officials;

  • the Migration Legislation Amendment Act 1999, which dealt with the control of entry into Australia and the exclusion of foreign officials who are proven to have links to terrorism; and

  • the Privacy Amendment Act 2000, which made possible the disclosure of information pertaining to the departure or arrival of people or goods from industry to Australian Customs officials.

    In the same period, two undetected arrivals of illegal entrant vessels in 1999 resulted in a complete overhaul of the maritime surveillance system. Australia has no official coast guard. There is only a voluntary 'coast guard' comprising a small group of volunteers who are organised to rescue people in the surf and reefs around the country.18 Instead of a coast guard, the Federal Department of Customs was given the responsibility for maritime surveillance and border security through an agency named Customs Coastwatch. The overhaul of 1999 resulted in an influx of new resources for this agency, such as new aircraft, trained staff, and a National Surveillance Centre that combined the existing operational and planning capability of the interdepartmental staff with a much-needed analytical role.19

    In the years 2000-01, the arrival of illegal immigrants and people smuggling via boat were at a peak; it was at this point that the Howard government moved for greater integration of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) into home security.20 Customs Coastwatch welcomed a rear admiral from the ADF as its head and it incorporated naval staff as well as specially designed naval patrol vessels and aircraft in an otherwise Customs-mandated operation. Furthermore, its activities became dependent on the reports of the surveillance and response needs of its major clients in an interdepartmental context from the regions (fisheries, immigration, health, transport, environment, federal and regional police, and customs). Although these changes led to improvements, the treatment of refugees and migrants was judged harsh by many and drew significant criticism from human rights groups and the media.

    The other major event for Australia during this period was the post-referendum violence in East Timor. The intense international response, which the ADF led, highlighted several grave shortcomings in logistics, sea lift and special forces, which in turn focused the NSCC on a new path for Australia's military forces in the overarching rubric of national security.21 In 2000, the Defence White Paper focused on giving a greater level of combat capability to the ADF. The ADF was newly shaped, not only to defend Australia and her interests abroad (coalition participation) but also to be sufficiently flexible to strengthen Australia's security interests in the immediate region.22

    Due to circumstances that were unique to Australia (regional instability, concern over international organised crime, the 2000 Olympic Games, unwanted maritime migration and the East Timor crisis), the government embarked on new directions in its own workings and in information sharing, security resource management and organisational structure. This led to significant moves designed to increase the efficiency of and confidence in the national security apparatus prior to the events of 11 September 2001.

    In next month's issue, the continuing evolution of the security environment in Australia will be described and analysed. A final article will examine the key maritime security activities of Collaboration, Domain Awareness, Safeguarding and Responsiveness to identify the impressive pattern of approaches to maritime security that the Australian government has woven together.

    Captain Peter Avis of the Canadian Forces Maritime Command is currently seconded to the Privy Council Office as Military Advisor to National Security

    1 "Australia Geography - 2003", in The 2003 CIA World Factbook. Website: www.theodora.com/wfb2003/australia/ australia_geography.html

    2 John Hirst, Executive Director of Australian Ports and Marine Authorities Association, "Ports 'vulnerable', marine authority says", 22 March 2004, ABC News Online. Website: www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/s1071093.htm

    3 "Australia Background Notes", The US Department of State. Website: www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2968.htm

    4 John Anderson, Australia's Minister of Transport, in an interview for The Age newspaper on 21 March 2004. Website: www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/03/21/ 1079823236334.html

    5 A Tewes, L Rayner, and K Kavanaugh, "A Foundation Paper on Australia's Maritime Strategy". A research paper prepared at client request and made available to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 2002).

    6 Robert Ayson, "Australia's Defence and Security Challenges: A Tale of Three Posts", in The New Zealand International Review (January/February 2003), p7.

    7 Ibid.

    8 Ibid.

    9 Australia, Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, "Report on National Crime Authority" (Canberra, 1998): pp1-4. Website: www.aph.gov.au/Senate/ committee/acc_ctte/itlaw/

    10 Australia, Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, "Hearings on National Crime Authority: Mr. Raymond Kendall, Secretary General of Interpol" (Canberra: 5 December 1996). Website: www.aph.gov.au/hansard/ joint/commttee/j5963242.pdf

    11 Ibid, p9.

    12 Ibid. Author's italics to highlight Kendall's idea of altering legislation to enable increased sharing of information between the two security cultures. "Report on National Crime Authority", p3.

    13 Ibid.

    14 Australia, Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, Annual Report 1996-97 (Canberra: 1997) paragraph 45. Website: www.aph.gov.au/Senate/

    committee/acc_ctte/annual/1996/report2/contents.htm

    15 John Howard, "Strategic Leadership for Australia: Policy Directions in a Complex World", speech originally delivered by Prime Minister Howard at the meeting of the Committee for Economic Development Australia, 20 November 2002.

    16 Ibid.

    17 Daryl Williams, Attorney-General of Australia, "Australia's National Security", media release dated 18 September 2001. Website: www.asio.gov.au/Media/Contents/ australias%20national%20security.htm

    18 Group Captain Ian Pearson, Director of Australian Coastwatch Operations, telephone interview. Ottawa/ Canberra 7 May 2004.

    19 "Overview of Customs Coastwatch", in The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 18, no. 3 (August 2003), p4.

    20 Group Captain Ian Pearson, op cit.

    21 Ayson, op cit, p7.

    22 Australia Defence White Paper - "Defence 2000: Our Future Defence Force", (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2000), p2.




  • Explore our related content