‘National security’ or protect people here and now?

By Dave Holmes

March 27, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Arguing for Socialism — 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 our 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 in a March 10 speech. The website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet claims that “National security is all about keeping Australians safe and secure.”

Actually, 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 all meant to stand to attention and salute the flag. They are meant to trump all other concerns that people may have. Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party 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

Surely, if those capitalist propaganda staples of the “national interest” and “national security” mean anything they should mean protecting the wellbeing of the people who live here — 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 nothing — absolutely nothing — to help with the actual challenge that faces us, i.e., dealing with global warming and its consequences — let alone dealing with aged care, healthcare and a host of other pressing social problems.

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

But even if climate virtue suddenly and miraculously descended over the whole planet, big climate changes are already in the pipeline and won’t easily be reversed. So climate action also has to include some far-reaching measures to protect people and give us a chance of survival in the unprecedentedly hostile environment that is fast developing.

Internal climate refugees

In Australia, the recent devastating floods along our eastern seaboard have displaced a lot of people. We now have our very own internal climate refugees.

For example, the northern NSW town of Lismore has effectively been destroyed (see picture above). Thousands of residents are now homeless: their homes are gone, often they were not insured. There is a lot of brave talk about rebuilding the town but in, say, five years time, how many current residents will still be there? And it’s clear that 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 and more people will be forced to move from where they are living and go somewhere safer.

It is true that homes can be made more resilient in the face of floods or bushfires but there are severe limits to this. 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 simply buy or build another home. Homelessness will rachet up to unprecedented levels.

Homelessness was a growing problem even before the recent floods. On census night in 2016, 116,000 people were homeless, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Under the current regime of profit-driven developers the problem of homelessness and lack of housing will never be solved. 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.

We need government housing authorities capable of building scores of 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. Obviously the most needy should be given priority but public housing should be available to all.

What about insurance?

Insurance is a racket, an expensive gamble that we are forced to make due to the fear of losing everything due to misfortune or disaster.

But the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss explains that insurance can’t 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 Australians living in the tropics against storm damage.
Just as no bookmaker will take a $10bn 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 $10bn “reinsurance pool” to help lower insurance premiums for northern Australians. But not even the insurance industry thinks that will work.
According to the chief executive of Suncorp, 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.”

In this situation, why have house insurance at all? If everyone had the right to a basic house, then 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 you may never recover. But if you knew that society would do its best to look after you, things would be different.

Where’s the money coming from?

Australian state and federal governments are capitalist through and through. They are there to represent the capitalist class which includes, among others, the 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 last two pandemic years shows 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. Socialists call for measures such as the following:

  • We need to nationalise the key elements of the economy — the banks, mines, transport system and so on.
  • The corporate tax rate should be returned to the 49% level of the 1980s. We need to make sure it is actually paid and crack down hard on tax avoidance. We need to establish a steeply progressive personal taxation system — those on the bottom pay little or nothing, those at the top pay a lot.
  • We 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

In normal times invoking "national security" and the "national interest" gets 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 has been destroyed, the normal deceptive spin of capitalist politicians isn't going to work very well. People expect the government to come forward with assistance and solutions.

Many people probably think that talk about China and Russia is all very well but meanwhile how are we going to live if floods, bushfires and searing heatwaves become normal frequent occurrences? 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 where looking after the mass of the population is the highest priority of all government policy. Obviously, this would require some fundamental changes in our society. This won't be easy but there is no other way.