‘National security’ or protect people here and now?

March 28, 2022
Lismore inundated by the climate emergency. Photo: Elly Bird

As the lives of residents along Australia’s east coast were smashed by unprecedented floods, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was talking up “national security”. The Coalition government has committed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars on beefing up the armed forces.

“Our world is becoming increasingly uncertain, so it’s important we take steps now to protect our people and our national interest over the coming decades,” Morrison said on March 10. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website claims that “national security is all about keeping Australians safe and secure”.

It’s not; it’s about the interests of the tiny capitalist class who rule the country. When the code phrases of “national security” and “national interest” are trotted out, we are expected to stand to attention and salute the flag.

They are meant to trump all other concerns that people may have; Anthony Albanese and other Labor leaders certainly understand it that way. Albanese’s pathetic response to the Coalition’s war drive is to claim that Labor will actually deliver the weapons systems that Morrison has merely promised.

Protecting all of us

If those capitalist propaganda staples — “national interest” and “national security” — are to mean anything, it should be about protecting the wellbeing of all of us, not just the handful of corporate rich.

Australia is not under threat from any other country. But, right now, we are under an immediate and existential threat from climate change due to global warming.

The planned new planes, missiles, submarines, tanks and extra troops are designed to plug Australia into the US war drive against China. This is Morrison’s idea of “national security” and the “national interest”. It shouldn’t be ours.

A stronger military will do absolutely nothing to help with the actual challenge of dealing with global warming and its consequences, let alone with aged care, healthcare and other pressing social problems.

First, we have to take drastic and urgent action to tackle climate change at the source. That means stop extracting and using fossil fuels completely, and achieve net zero carbon emissions as rapidly as possible.

But even if climate virtue miraculously descended over the whole planet, big climate changes are already in the pipeline and will not be easy to reverse. Climate action also has to include some far-reaching protections to give us a chance of survival in the unprecedentedly hostile environment that is fast developing.

Internal climate refugees

The devastating floods along Australia’s eastern seaboard have displaced a lot of people: we now have our very own internal climate refugees. The northern New South Wales town of Lismore has effectively been destroyed. Thousands of residents are now homeless: their homes are gone, many were not insured.

There is a lot of brave talk about rebuilding the town. But in five year’s time, how many residents will still be there? If the town is to be rebuilt, it will have to be somewhere safer.

As climate change bites ever deeper, more and more regions will become uninhabitable due to floods, bushfires, extreme heat, rising sea levels, whether singly or in some combination. More people will be forced to move somewhere safer.

It is true that homes can be made more resilient in the face of floods or bushfires, but there are severe limits. There is no escaping the fact that human settlement in some areas of the country will have to be abandoned.

Homelessness crisis

However, when people are forced to leave their home — whether because it was destroyed or the area is no longer habitable — they will often be abandoning their main asset. Most will not be in a position to buy or build another home. Homelessness will ratchet up to unprecedented levels.

Homelessness is already a growing problem; on census night in 2016, 116,000 people were homeless according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Homelessness and the lack of housing will never be solved by the current regime of profit-driven developers. If we want to avoid shanty towns and tent suburbs around our major cities, we need governments to commit to a massive program of quality public housing.

Government authorities need to build thousands of high quality homes every year. In the face of rising temperatures, these need to be properly insulated. Rents should be tied to income and kept low. The most needy must be given priority, but public housing should be available to all.

What about insurance?

Insurance is an expensive gamble we are forced to make due to the fear of losing everything due to misfortune or disaster. But as the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss explained, insurance cannot cover us for society-wide disasters like the consequences of climate change.

“If a forecaster says something’s likely to happen, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to get insurance against it … While insurance companies make their profit out of our fear of an individual catastrophe, they would lose their entire business if they insured against society-wide catastrophe.

“We take it for granted that insurance companies will pay out if an accident hits our car or house but most people rarely think about what will happen if catastrophe hits us all at once. Which is why the small print on insurance premiums is so small.”

For the same reasons, a growing number of insurers are reluctant to insure people living in the tropics against storm damage.

Just as no bookmaker will take a $10 billion bet on the flip of a coin, no insurance company will take a bet that nuclear power stations won’t have accidents, or that sea levels aren’t going to rise in the next 50 years. While you can still get cyclone insurance in northern Australia, the prices are rising rapidly as global temperatures rise and tropical cyclone intensity increases.

In response, the Morrison government announced a $10 billion “reinsurance pool” to help lower insurance premiums for northern Australians. But not even the insurance industry thinks that will work.

According to Suncorp chief executive Steve Johnston, “disaster mitigation, rather than disaster clean-up, is where Australia should focus. It is a sad fact that 97 cents of every dollar of disaster funding goes to recovery and rebuild”. “The remaining three cents spent on preparation and mitigation is but a small drop in a rapidly filling bucket,” he said.

In this situation, why have house insurance at all? If everyone had the right to a basic house, why would you need insurance? Homeowners take out insurance because they know the consequences of losing their house in an uncaring capitalist society is a disaster from which they may never recover. But if they knew that society would do its best to look after you, things would be different.

Where’s the money coming from?

State and federal governments represent the capitalist class which includes, among others, landlords, speculators and the euphemistically misnamed “developers" who are attacking the suburbs of our cities like a permanent plague of locusts.

The huge government expenditures of the past two pandemic years show what governments can do — if they want to.

It should now be a little harder for capitalist ideologues to dismiss a demand for increased social expenditures by raising the classic cry “Where’s the money going to come from?”

The financial resources to tackle climate change and its consequences are here in abundance. We need measures including returning the key elements of the economy — banks, mines and the transport system to public ownership. We need to return the corporate tax rate to its 1980s level of 49%. We need to ensure sure it is actually paid and crack down hard on tax avoidance. We need a steeply progressive personal taxation system — those on the bottom should pay little or nothing, those at the top should pay a lot.

We also need to scrap the orders for the planes, missiles, submarines, tanks and the other useless military hardware.  Military spending should be slashed and our armed forces reconfigured for the actual defence of the country’s borders.

When spin doesn't work

Invoking “national security” and the “national interest” in normal times receives a lot of traction. But climate change truly changes everything.

The floods and bushfires affect people in the most direct and immediate way. When your house and property have been destroyed, the normal deceptive spin of capitalist politicians is not going to work very well. People expect the government to come forward with assistance and solutions.

Many people probably think talk about China and Russia is all very well, but how are we going to live if floods, bushfires and searing heatwaves become frequent events? What happens when my house is destroyed and I have no insurance because it was too expensive or the insurance companies wouldn’t offer it where I live?

The only solution is to fight for a people-centred “national security” policy in which looking after the mass of the population is governments’ highest priority.

Obviously, this would require some fundamental changes in society. It won’t be easy but there is no other way.

[This article was first published at Dave Holmes' blog Arguing for socialism.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.