OPINION

Yes, drums are beating, Mike Pezzullo. But we need principles before Australians start dying

In many ways, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo was bang on about the drums beating. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
In many ways, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo was bang on about the drums beating. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Mike Pezzullo reckons he can hear the "drums of war" beating louder and louder. Is that because, like Quasimodo, the Home Affairs secretary has been stuck in the belfry so long he can only hear the sound of incessantly ringing bells?

And should he be depicted simply as a wandering, lost soul, missing a leader who's now left him for the brighter uniforms in defence (all of which, by the way have sleeves extending down to fully cover naked shoulders rather than the bane of Pezzullo's department, bra-straps suddenly revealing themselves alluringly during video meetings)? Is he joining the cacophony banging away, sounding the war drums as loud as they can, so he can prove his worth so his master will call for him and they can, once again, whisper sweet nothings to one another?

No. However easy it may be to imagine Pezzullo's feeling personal pain and desperately yearning for Dutton's firm hand and the glorious fully-sleeved uniforms of the services there's far more to the video than this alone. As principle writer of the briefly implemented (but glorious) 2009 Defence White Paper, Pezzullo's always seen himself (in addition to his accomplishments as an administrator and political adviser) as a strategist.

Analysing his words, however, isn't a comfortable activity because, in so many ways, Pezzullo's absolutely right.

Decency and rights don't stop - or start - at our borders. The secretary was, unexceptionally, pointing out the values we admire are extremely different, in implementation, to those endorsed in Beijing. Everybody naturally wants to end up in the same valley of perpetual light and happiness - but we've got very different ways of getting there. The question is do our paths have to cross on the way and, if so, is there enough room for us to pass as we do so?

Take the five-year view (completely coincidentally, probably about the expected remaining longevity of Pezzullo's tenure) and you can understand the pessimism. If anything, his words are far too relaxed. This is the first issue his speech highlights: what could cause a war? For a start there is absolutely no agreement about so-called "red lines" that might cause a war. Labor is so scared of this becoming a political issue it allows the government to wreath its rhetoric in ambiguity. We need to decide on some principles before Australians start dying.

What if, for example, somebody thinks a couple of missiles have been fired at a US destroyer. Does that mean we are at war? That's the way we went to war in Vietnam (after the Tonkin Gulf incidents). What if Taiwan is "invaded" not by troops, but by an unarmed fishing fleet and shooting starts? When that leftie Alexander Downer was Foreign Minister he said ANZUS wouldn't apply: is that still the case? And what would we do, anyway? Send a frigate?

I'd also assume plans for petrol rationing are in place, although I do wonder how our strategic reserve of fuel (currently being kept in America) is going to arrive here in time.

Which leads directly to the second issue. We are not prepared for war. So how do we fix this military discrepancy? By spending? Fine and let's be up-front. Pezzullo's call to boost the forces means dramatically speeding up the acquisition of hardware. Unless the government allocates (at least) an extra third, or $10 billion, on defence this budget you know they're dismissing the Secretary's warnings.

This is a second, but crucial, litmus test. Until you hear the PM saying we won't build a new hospital or will be introducing a tax levy to pay for extra spending you'll know that it's just a smoke and mirrors trick that's being played to make you worried. Yes, this is a real issue but so far it's one that's being exclusively harnessed for political purposes. Until Labor finds its voice and confronts the government, the government will continue pretending our current levels of defence expenditure actually provide some military security, when they don't.

But fun though it is to play with toy ships like an Admiral in the bath (see that knee rising up from the water, that's Mischief Reef!), let's focus instead on the third issue, unaddressed by Pezzullo. What a war would mean to Home Affairs?

Beijing has no time for what it regards as the dubious concept of dual-nationality so how does the department intend to treat the hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals, many who also hold Australian citizenship or who are accepted as permanent residents in this country on the day war breaks out? How about the huge numbers of foreign students? Will universities be expected to help round them up? And what of other workers currently here and hoping to become Australian? I'm hugely interested in Border Force's plan to deal with this problem, because I'm sure Pezzullo would have made them war-game this issue.

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I'd also assume plans for petrol rationing are in place, although I do wonder how our strategic reserve of fuel (currently being kept in America) is going to arrive here in time. In the meantime we'll all be paying at least triple the price for petrol (if there is any). At least the roads will be clear.

But the biggest problem will probably be communications. We don't know how devastating an internet war is likely to be because there's never been one before. But just because computers rely on zeros and ones doesn't mean the effect will be small. We've never experienced a war since the internet became such a critical feature of our society so, for a start, get into practice writing letters again. Odds are that cascades of worms will be destructively eating their way through the internet faster than any hungry caterpillar ever could. And stoke up the fire, because sudden random attacks are likely to intermittently stop electricity. And money? Well, forget credit cards. Typical commercial transactions - buying and selling houses, cars, washing machines, etc - will, effectively stop.

Perhaps this is why Pezzullo's so concerned about war.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a regular columnist.

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This story Drums are beating. But we need principles before Australians start dying first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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