It’s time for an Australian national and community service program

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In the face of complex environmental and geopolitical security challenges, Australian policymakers should create a voluntary program of national and community service to build national resilience, writes John Blaxland.

The past three years have been marked by a multitude of crises, revealing serious shortcomings in Australia’s crisis response mechanisms. In early 2022 alone, there have already been numerous crises that have pushed state and community services beyond their capacity and required the assistance of the Australian Defense Force (ADF).

Overreliance on ADF in domestic crisis situations is problem both for crisis management and long-term combat readiness, and is inappropriate given the current threat environment and the frequency of environmental challenges. To avoid overstretching the ADF at a time when it may be most needed internationally, Australia needs to have a serious debate on the subject of national and community service.

The ADF, although a competent and professional organization, is not a substitute for specialist emergency services that have the special skills and equipment needed to respond to a growing number of natural and man-made disasters. Additionally, the reconfiguration and deployment of the ADF in domestic crisis operations is complex and time consuming, and often requires traveling great distances from their home bases. This risks giving the impression that the ADF is slow to respond and could ultimately undermine the relationship between the ADF and the wider Australian community.

Some of the units that were deployed to the stairwells of quarantine hotels four months ago, or the kitchens and laundry rooms of aged care facilities in February, have recently been shoveling mud in northern New South Wales. Such deployments are not what the Australian community should expect from the ADF, nor what many ADF members expected from their careers.

The current situation means ADF staff are missing out on important training and career development opportunities. This too stop the ADF to focus on its primary task of protecting Australian citizens, territory, interests and allies from armed confrontation.

Australia now faces a security environment as challenging as any in 80 years, including a three-dimensional spectrum of environmental challenges, governance and great power contestation.

Environmental challenges such as droughts, fires, cyclones and floods are expected to become more frequent and more extreme.

Governance issues are also likely to escalate, particularly around the use of disinformation, disruptions and interference by individuals and groups in Australia and overseas.

Finally, deepening great-power competition makes armed conflict in Australia’s neighborhood more likely. Meanwhile, America’s appetite for ideational leadership of the post-World War II international order has waned, and Russia’s threat to Europe will likely preoccupy the United Nations Treaty Organization. North Atlantic (NATO) for years.

It is conceivable that an adversary could create or exploit a crisis in Australia’s neighborhood, presenting a challenge in finding the resources to respond appropriately, given Australia’s recent overreliance on the ADF. for the management of national crises.

These shortcomings underscore the need to maintain the security of the nation as a whole, both in terms of national and wider security challenges, and a universal Australian program for national and community service could be an important part of the solution.

Such suggestions are inevitably met with concern given Australia’s troubled political relationship with military service since 1915, and especially during the Vietnam War.

However, a voluntary, incentive-based program that taps into Australia’s traditions of voluntary service and mutual assistance would help Australia respond more effectively to these contemporary challenges.

The program would introduce school leavers and young Australians (and not just men, as in the past) to a wide variety of service pathways with minimum requirements ranging from one to two years, allowing them to choose how they would prefer to serve their community and country.

Participants would choose from service options within the ADF – similar to those established ADF gap year program – but also roles within rural fire departments, state emergency services, state health services, senior care, national parks and wildlife, Federal and State Police, Border Force and the Australian Volunteer Program focusing on international development.

Such a program would enable Australia to be better prepared to deal with a range of environmental, governance and security challenges, while actively promoting national resilience.

Participation should be incentivized, so that participants receive nationally recognized qualifications and valuable work experience.

In addition to a modest subsistence allowance (since food and lodging would be provided), a trust account could be established for each participant with a fortnightly salary commensurate with the difficulty of their service flow, and an additional salary for those deployed in a national or international crisis. .

This account could then be used for college fees, government fees, paid into superannuation, or as a loan for business purposes upon completion. Importantly, this service model would be optimized for continued part-time service thereafter, regardless of flow, in a manner similar to ADF. Ready Book 1990s diet.

Beyond solving the current intertwining of challenges, such a program would also have a plethora of capacity and community building benefits for Australian society, for example bringing together young Australians from diverse backgrounds and by further instilling a sense of autonomy and resilience in young people. .

A The likely objection is that Australia cannot afford to have such a system. The answer is that Australia cannot afford not to build any kind of response capability, and this program is probably a very cost-effective contingency against much higher costs of various kinds.

If the nation lacks the capacity to respond effectively to increasingly frequent crises, it could well pay in Australian lives and sovereignty. But thanks to a universal Australian program of national and community service, Australia can face these crises together.

This article is published as part of the Policy Forum’s new section – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and insights that go beyond sound bites.

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