Speech to Women in National Security Conference

9.15am | October 26, 2018











Since its creation in 2009, the National Security College has acted as nexus between academic thinking and government activity. I think that over the coming years, the National Security College will be seen as one of the more important innovations of the last government. It represents a significant intellectual investment in our policy capacity.

It also builds on an important asset. Although you all belong to different departments and agencies, each with unique perspectives and responsibilities, you collectively are part of a broader national security community with a shared sense of mission and culture. It is a community that many people would describe as an institution.

It has its own internal rules and culture. It has an authority when it speaks on issues. It has a role which extends beyond the performance of tasks to a broader sense of social responsibility. It reinforces its identity, and grows its knowledge through events just like this today.

There is traditionally a strength that comes from the sense of history and responsibility that institutions have.

It is, however, a challenging time for institutions.

One of the striking features of our age has been the collapse of trust in institutions across the western world. The Edelman trust barometer has surveyed attitudes across more than 20 countries for decades. Last year only 33% of Australians said they trusted government, 40% trusted the media, and 45% trusted business.

These numbers are stark, but even they don’t quite capture the true sense of the grand unmooring that has occurred over the past two decades. The nature of our public square has changed. Few of the social pillars of the post-war period remain unscathed. The banks, organised religion, the media, big business, political parties – each have in their own way been called into question.

I think it’s a mistake to see these as unconnected. Of course in each case it is possible to find a particular event or scandal that kicked things off. However, I don’t think this is the whole story. These separate scandals are linked by more than just poor behaviour. Each landed on fertile ground. And as one institution was engulfed in controversy, the watching public became less likely to believe that other institutions were doing the right thing when no one was watching.

What we have been seeing, in other words, is a self-reinforcing trend for the public to believe that, when given the chance, institutions will choose to serve their own narrow interests.

It’s a trend that Australia’s national security community to date has managed to escape. Unlike so many others, you have not suffered a crisis of trust.

I don’t think this is because national security institutions are in some way insulated from the broader forces at play. Indeed, if you look overseas you can see quite recent examples where agencies have found themselves in crisis.

Nor do I think that the national security community here in Australia has just been lucky in avoiding the kind of incident which is capable of triggering broader systemic concerns. Over the past decade there have been a handful of high profile events in Australia which had the potential to boil over.

But they didn’t.

I think that is partly to the credit of the people in this room. Something about the way our national security community operates has helped it maintain the trust of the Australian people.

What is that? And how can we strengthen it? This is the question I want to tangle with today.

I should say that I do so as a relative newcomer to your world. But in my relatively short time in the parliament, I’ve had the good fortune to engage with some of you through my membership of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security – known, affectionately I would hope, as the PJCIS.

I’ve greatly appreciated the willingness of the officers I’ve dealt with to support me in that role – to provide candid reflections on issues, and to share sensitive information that provides critical context. It’s required trust on their part. And it’s got me thinking more broadly about this question of trust in this most sensitive and important part of policy making.

Trust matters to all institutions, but it matters to our national security institutions more than most.

This is because trust is an essential response to the dilemma that lies at the heart of national security decision making in a democracy.

There is a permanent tension between the democratic need for accountable decision making on the one hand, and the practical need for secrecy in national security on the other hand.

Citizens rightly expect to be able to find out what is being done on their behalf and with their money. They are supported in this by agents of accountability - independent experts, community advocates, and the free press. They are able to do this for environment policy, or economic policy, or arts policy because the information they need is by and large public.

But that’s not the case in your world, because so much is necessarily secret. Secrets are not a luxury in national security. There are things that really cannot and should not be made public. And real people often pay a steep price when secrecy is breached – something that weighs heavily on me in my work on the PJCIS.

This tension between secrecy and accountability is what political theorists call “The Secrecy Dilemma”.

As one academic elegantly put it:

“The dilemma of accountability may be thought of as a political version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Just as physicists can’t measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time (because the process of measuring the position disturbs the momentum), so citizens cannot evaluate some policies and processes because the act of evaluating defeats the policy or undermines the process.”

This matters because it goes to the heart of the government’s fundamental promise to its citizens – to ensure their safety.

Compare the following:

During the 1980 election campaign, Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. It was a question citizens could answer by checking their pocket books and pay stubs. Experts could look at economic data and give an informed opinion about whether the policies of the government were helping or not.

Fast forward to the 2004 election campaign where Democratic candidate John Kerry used a CNN interview to ask Americans if they thought they were safer than they were three years ago. It was an important question in the aftermath of September 11. But how was a voter to answer it? And even if they could, how could they answer the logical follow up – how much credit or blame does the government deserve? Is the considerable amount of money spent on national security being used well? Are the concessions of personal liberty and privacy being asked for necessary and proportionate to the threats faced?

Ultimately, the public needs to take it on faith that the facts they are being told about their security are true. They need trust.

And a loss of trust would present enormous problems for the national security community because there’s no easy substitution for it.

Other institutions that have come into crisis have moved from a relationship weighted towards trust, to one weighted towards compliance. In such circumstances, institutions find themselves being forced to make changes they often do not like.

Longstanding traditions and arrangements that were previously taken for granted come into question. In the past year, for instance, we’ve heard serious proposals that the church should be required to break the confessional seal in cases of child abuse; something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Changes may also disrupt existing organisational practices. Certain practices and products may have been highly profitable for the banks, but that’s frankly irrelevant for regulators deciding how to respond to the scandals that have emerged.

At the same time, the institutions themselves have lost the ability to credibly participate in the public debate about themselves. Fairly or unfairly, is there anyone who trusts financial advisers on the question of financial regulation today? There is a reason the public now consistently tell pollsters that they count “someone like me” as one of the most credible sources of information.

In short, institutions find they lose control of their own destiny.

What would a similar shift away from trust to towards compliance look like in a national security context?

We should aim to avoid finding out.

So how do we do this? The answer I believe is to be found in culture.

When you go back and look at any of the organisational scandals in Australia or overseas there is one theme that appears again and again. That theme is culture.

The culture of an organisation can be incredibly difficult to pin down. As a result it is easy to dismiss as an empty word. That’s a mistake. Culture is actually an incredibly powerful driver of actions. It embodies the norms that an institution uses to police its own behaviour.

The breakdown in trust in institutions has been precipitated by a failure of those norms. When we no longer believe an institution is willing or able to control its own actions, we turn to externally enforced rules instead.

I suspect that the reason that the national security community has managed to avoid a crisis in confidence is located somewhere in its unique institutional culture

It is the responsibility of you all as members of that community to identify what that is and protect it. I say it is your responsibility because the culture of an organisation can be incredibly opaque to outsiders. It takes newcomers years to intuit how things work and why.

I think you should go further though. The proposition I want to put to you today is this: you should not only protect your culture, but publicly promote it. In today’s climate of doubt, a strong culture that unites the actions of an organisation to its mission is a real asset. It should be publicised. The national security community should proactively embrace the opportunities it has to publicly demonstrate the strength and probity of its institutional culture.

So what would this look like? I don’t think it means aggressively seeking media attention. Nor does it mean getting caught up in the rough and tumble of politics. It’s worth reflecting on another of our institutions that has managed to avoid a crisis of trust (unlike some of their counterparts overseas) – the courts and judiciary. Their strong aversion to being drawn on partisan matters is a sensible instinct that I think the national security community shares.

Politicians are far from the most trusted profession. In fact according to Roy Morgan we’re 6th last, sitting just above professions like stockbrokers, talkback radio announcers, real estate agents and car salesmen. There are very clear reasons why politicians would want to borrow credibility from trustworthy institutions. There are also very clear reasons why that is a bad idea.

We have faced a range of challenging national security issues over the past two decades. Our success in dealing with them has rested in part on the trust the Australian community has in you. It is too important to risk through a politicisation of our national security institutions.

So what can the security community do to more publicly communicate the strength of its culture? There is a simple maxim fiction writers use – show, don’t tell.

I want to take a moment to consider the little corner of the security world that I operate in – the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

The committee is one part of the oversight mechanisms that were put in place after events in the 70s and 80s. A primary role of the committee is to review all of the national security legislation that goes before parliament, as well as oversight administration and expenditure.

Over the years it has become an important part of our uniquely Australian system of oversight.

When they are operating at their best, oversight bodies like PJCIS are best thought of as a part of our national security institution. Our job isn’t solely to call out wrongdoing – although the capacity to do so is essential. It is also to identify potential issues so they can be addressed. In this way, we share some of the responsibility for maintaining public trust and confidence in the national security community. It is – and should be – a shared goal.

This is one of the reasons that Labor has a long standing proposal to modernise and reform the operation of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee.

Through my work on the committee, I’ve been struck by the opportunity its processes present for modelling the type of behaviours – and culture – that the public expect. This is an opportunity for both the parliament and the national security community.

When considering new security laws, the committee takes evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. We listen to civil liberties groups, business, as well as the “agencies” in both closed and open sessions.

The end result is almost always a bipartisan report with dozens of detailed amendments that the government adopts as a whole. It’s a legislative model that is entirely unreplicated in other policy areas or indeed by other committees in parliament.

But the way in which we arrive at that report is almost as important as the report itself.

The very public process of authorising and reauthorising laws that the committee goes through is not only an important instance of democratic accountability and law by consent; it also builds trust. There are so many security decisions that the public can’t see. We can use the ones they can see to show that impositions on personal freedoms and privacy only occur after a careful balancing process.

The committee’s public hearings offer the same opportunity to the national security community. The measured candour that the national security agencies bring to their public evidence before the committee reinforces confidence that a similar approach operates behind closed doors. Your willingness to talk publicly when it is possible builds trust and acceptance of the times when you can’t. I’ve been impressed with the respectful engagement by the national security community not just with the members of the committee, but with the ideas presented by the broader community.

It worth considering what similar opportunities there may be elsewhere throughout our national security system.

Inspiration may well come from overseas.

I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to hear an address by Alex Joel, the Chief of the Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency, in the Office of National Intelligence in the United States.

He noted that there had been a number of instances over the past decade in which the American intelligence community had to deal with the release of classified documents, or indeed more recently, had been asked to declassify and release documents themselves. The American intelligence community had found, over time, that the best practice was to proactively disclose information where appropriate. Not only did this mean that organisations were more familiar with how to handle the processes of publicly releasing information, it was also a way to build trust in the practice of secrecy itself.

The US system differs in important ways to ours.

It is interesting to consider what a similar approach would look like if it were adopted here.

I wanted to finish by commenting on the importance of everyone in the room here.

Culture is not a “set and forget” feature. It requires constant vigilance to ensure that an organisation is acting in the way the community expects. This task is substantially easier if an organisation remains connected to the community. In part this means resisting the temptation of isolation and insularity in thinking. But it also means diversity and representation. An organisation that looks nothing like the broader community is more likely to depart from its values. By contrast, an organisation with strong roots in the community is more likely both to remain connected to the community and to identify emerging ideas.

And this is where you come in - women in security. It is so important for our national security institutions to embrace more than just 50% of the population. Your contribution to your organisations is not defined by your gender. Nonetheless, your presence in these organisations does make them more resilient.

It is also something that has given me great pleasure as a feminist.

I believe women ought to take their place in every sphere of society.

I have been delighted throughout my work on the committee to meet so many impressive women doing traditionally male jobs without fuss. Capable, intelligent, and highly motivated to serve - your presence and your professionalism is one of the best parts of the national security community’s culture.


25 OCTOBER 2018