Peter Dutton, then Minister for Home Affairs, and Angus Taylor, then Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security, announcing the appointment of the Karl Kent OAM as Australia’s first Commonwealth Transnational Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator, 1 May 2018. Commonwealth of Australia

‘National Security’ and Australian Identity

The Morrison government has clearly signalled its intention to make ‘national security’ a key issue in this year’s federal election. It has repeatedly attacked the Labor opposition on issues including foreign interference, asylum seekers and defence spending. It places all of these issues under the ‘national security’ umbrella. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has even gone so far as to declare the Chinese administration would prefer an Albanese government, suggesting it would find his politics more to their liking.

The government’s concerted scare campaign received immediate backlash. Experts described it as “reckless” and a strategy “that serves only China”.

Despite the government’s efforts, Guardian polling shows a majority of voters trust Labor over the Coalition to handle our relationship with China.

In the same poll, voters highlighted public health, the climate and the cost of living as significant issues. This indicates Australians view social, economic and environmental issues as equally important to their security as foreign affairs.

Since the Second World War, ‘national security’ has generally referred to military threats. The term was enshrined in Australian legislation with the outbreak of war in 1939 and cemented in the US at the beginning of the Cold War.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, political usage of ‘national security’ ramped up across the Western world. It was used to justify increasingly invasive domestic policies and the rooting out of ‘foreign’ threats.

Today, the term ‘national security’ invokes an ambiguous foreign threat. It is often exploited to deflect public scrutiny and provide political cover for unpopular policies. In 2019, for example, the Coalition government and Senator Jacqui Lambie cited ‘national security’ risks to justify repealing a law that allowed refugees to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

‘National security’ has become so enmeshed with threats of invasion, espionage and terrorism that it’s easy to forget the term has a longer and more cosmopolitan history.

Political use of the term ‘national security’ skyrocketed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. Statue of Liberty and World Trade Centre, 11 September 2001. National Park Service

A Long and Murky History

Bookended by the Great Depression and the Second World War, Australians in the 1930s were concerned about different kinds of ‘national security’, While military and strategic framings were widespread, national security was also deployed to:

This diversity of use helps us distil what ‘national security’ has meant to Australians. In all the contexts, there were consistent themes: safety, wellbeing, durability and a long-term future.

For instance, in the wake of the Great Depression, Australians made explicit links between poverty, unemployment and national security.

People wrote letters to newspapers arguing for an increase in teachers’ salaries because “all money spent on education is a gilt-edged national security”.

At the same time, politicians deployed the term to advocate for local government and democratic constitutional reform.

In the 1935 New South Wales state election, the leader of a breakaway Labor faction, Jack Lang, promised social programs that would raise the standard of living and provide “the national happiness and comfort that can only come from national security”.

By 1937, Country Party leader Earle Page also seized on the term to refer to social and economic issues: “The best guarantee for national security is a substantial population of contented and prosperous people.”

In other words, national security was very much linked with the social and economic conditions of everyday Australians.

The diversity of uses of “national security’ in the 1930s has parallels in the range of threats Australians face today. These include job insecurity, housing,’poverty, family violence, climate change and the ongoing effects of COVID-19 on Australian health, food supply, the economy and society.

During the Great Depression, politicians such as Jack Lang used ‘national security’ to talk about poverty, work and education. MP Jack Beasley (John Albert Beasley) (centre), flanked by Premier Jack Lang (left), and Senator James Dunn (right) during a Labor march in Sydney, 1930.
National Archives Australia, M1409, 4

Just as in the 1930s, the health of Australians today “will lay the foundations of national security and progress in the future”. Taking a broader view of Australian “national security” reveals how narrow military framings distract from the lack of a clear vision for social, economic, environmental and political security as we head into the third year of the pandemic.

Ugly Undertones

A key element of understanding the meaning of ‘national security’ is analysing who is included and excluded in the word ‘national’. One of the most common framings of ‘national security’ in the 1930s was wrapped up in identity: Australian values, ideals and way of life.

In newspapers and in the parliament, security was pinned on the White Australia Policy protecting a racially homogenous national identity.

Commentators expressed deep anxieties over a small white population in “a huge, empty continent surrounded by the millions of the crowded East” – the “empty” here excluding Indigenous people from Australia’s national security.

Some advocated policies for attracting more white British migrants. Others promoted child endowment for parents to increase the white population.

These anxieties about identity as security are mirrored today. The Morrison government plays on longstanding threads of racism, xenophobia and fears of invasion to invoke security threats.

‘National security’ is too often used to conjure up amorphous threats beyond our shores, without fully explaining the dangers allegedly posed to Australians. It seems well past time the term ‘security’ took on a broader, more sophisticated meaning, encompassing the health, safety and wellbeing of the nation.The Conversation

Mia Martin Hobbs, (PhD in History, 2018, Honorary in SHAPS, Research Fellow, Deakin University). Republished from The Conversation.



Peter Dutton, then Minister for Home Affairs, and Angus Taylor, then Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security, announcing the appointment of the Karl Kent OAM as Australia’s first Commonwealth Transnational Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator, 1 May 2018. Commonwealth of Australia via Wikimedia Commons