Speech: ANU National Security Conference




Check against delivery.

We seem to be in a fog.

Almost everyone here knows it.

We head into briefings about the threats to our security: from foreign interference and espionage to cyber and strategic coercion.

The threat assessments are chilling.

But when we walk out of those secure meeting rooms, we act like nothing’s wrong.

We prepare generic public statements, and no one is moved.

We miss our recruiting targets. No new ships are built.

Our dialogue with our most trusted friends and allies, to quote one Ambassador, is languishing.

We’re sluggish to the point of apathy.

Why is that?

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech, conferring honorary citizenship on a man his father had ridiculed for being a warmonger, but whom he himself admired—that man was Winston Churchill.

JFK said, "In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone--and most men save Englishmen despaired of England's life--he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We’re not moving because we haven’t mobilised our language.

We need a change of language, and it must start here in the halls of learning.

We all need to bring something, and I’ve brought with me a 1300-year-old Nordic fighter, given new life by the contemporary feminist author Maria Dahvana Headley, and her punchy translation of Beowulf.

In 2020 Headley gave the world a fresh look at the Swedish warrior of the 6th Century.

With new eyes, we saw his passionate devotion to his Danish ally Hrothgar.

We saw the existential threat they both faced from a “woe walker”, a “hell dweller” known as Grendel.

A dark, terrifying enemy.

For all of us here who care about defending this great nation we love—protecting our democracy—and securing our future—I think her work is a gift that spits truth.

Its language shakes us awake.

It has the feel of a populist poem, as she notes in her introduction.

Now, there are two other translations to consider alongside hers—JRR Tolkien’s 1926 work, and Nobel Prize Laureate Seamus Heaney’s grand epic from 2000.

Headley finished hers during the pandemic in 2020, and so she writes in her introduction: “Beowulf depicts edge-times and border wars, and we’re still in them.”

Her work has an edginess to it, and she grabs you by the scruff of the neck with the first word: Bro!

While Tolkien translates the inviting, first word of the story as “Lo” and Heaney, begins with “So”, Headley starts with the word she heard so often when she was serving beer in bars, “Bro.”

Beowulf is an epic poem about us—living, breathing people—right here, right now.

It’s about the human condition and our universal quest for security and peace.

While Headley’s Beowulf is courageous and powerful, he is vulnerable and flawed too.

When he first fights the monster, it hurts:

“Knuckles buckled, joints unjoined. The attacker became the attacked.”

Like so much ancient literature, Beowulf holds out enduring lessons.

And for us in the defence community, almost immobilised by foggy language, it pushes us to take two bold steps.

Step one, to use clear language in articulating our threats, our objectives and strategic direction.

Step two, to speak more honestly with the Australian people—about our vulnerabilities, about the threat, and about the need to arm—so there’s a social licence in defence policy.


Step one: use clear language in national security leadership.

Let’s be open.

Throughout our history, Australia has enjoyed the strategic protection of a dominant, English-speaking democratic power.

At Federation, we enjoyed protection from the United Kingdom and the benefits of Pax Britannica. That protection was challenged in the First World War by Germany, and ended—sharply and brutally—in February 1942, with the fall of Singapore at the hands of Japanese Imperial Forces.

Prime Minister John Curtin, only a month later, gave a speech in March 1942, broadcast on Radio Australia, signalling that Australia ‘looked to America as the paramount factor on the democracies’ side in the Pacific’.

A nice and clear message. 

Since then, we have enjoyed protection from the United States as we wove ourselves into the post-war order of Pax Americana. This protection has not come without cost. Like all areas of life, there are trade-offs.

One of the trade-offs for enjoying the benefits of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana is that we have been obliged to defend those respective orders with our blood and treasure.

To be blunt, we have defended the values and interests of our senior partners with more than 100,000 Australian lives over the last century.

We wish that the world was a safer place. But security is never final, and complacency is almost always fatal. For the United States, the dilemmas of dominance are more acute and urgent than ever before.

From the Red Sea to Israel and Gaza, from Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait—we are seeing breakouts of strategic disorder across the globe. And they matter to Australia, as we feel the impact and see the fractures to Pax Americana.

Authoritarian powers and their proxies are on the move. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Hamas, and Houthi rebels—to name a few—undermine the order that underwrites our peace and prosperity.

We all know that China is undergoing the biggest peacetime military build-up since the Second World War. That is no secret.

Behind closed doors, the analytical consensus is clear: we are facing a grave and deteriorating strategic situation.

But disturbingly, there is a vast gap between the closed-door analytical consensus inside government and the public conversation that the Albanese government should be leading.

Worse, Ministers of the Crown use obscure and bureaucratic language when talking to the Australian people about our threats and challenges.

Language matters.

We're being let down.

The language we currently hear is everything George Orwell warned us about in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: "pure wind."

Let’s start with the phrase, “Preventive Architecture.” This is the language used in a keynote address at ASEAN by a Cabinet Minister. And we heard it again last night.

“Preventive architecture”: what does that mean? It sounds more like strategic contraception than deterrence.

No one really knows.

It is, as Orwell says, “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Next, consider this phrase, this time from the Deputy Prime Minister only last week at the Sydney Institute:

The man charged with explaining what deterrence means said this:

“It means having the capability to engage in impactful projection through the full spectrum of proportionate response.”

I can visualise nothing at all.

Except maybe President Josiah Bartlett asking a stunned White House Situation Room about the virtue of a proportional response… [Season 1, Episode 3]

It’s pure wind.

But try this for an image.

Beowulf confronts Grendel, the monster nursing a hard grievance.

He cannot use his sword in hand-to-hand combat. Nor can his men use their ‘ancestral blades.’ As no blade on earth, could ever damage their opponent.

So, Beowulf waits in his bed for Grendel to attack him—he uses surprise and grips his arm so tightly that he cannot escape.

As Headley writes, ‘His bones cracked, but he could not wrestle free from the clasp, war-wedded to a woe-bringer, who clung like no human ever clung, keeping him close.’

Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm, who retreats and dies in his lair—his hourglass emptied by the struggle.

Can you see that?

I can. And I see the point. We can’t rely on old ways of thinking—our ancestral blades—if we hope to deter our adversaries.

We must discover our own asymmetric vice-like grip, so that if we are attacked one day, we can surprise and tear the arm off an adversary.

We hope Pillar Two of AUKUS yields plenty of asymmetric vice-like grips. If our friends from Japan join us in that quest, we will be stronger for it.

But our people need a strategic narrative more potent than ‘preventive architecture’ or ‘impactful projection’ to help them get there.


Step two, to speak more honestly with the Australian people, so there’s a social licence in defence policy.

A failure of defence advocacy to the Australian public has consequences—it puts our greatest endeavours, like the Quad Security Dialogue and AUKUS, at risk.

Shingo Yamagami, recently Japan’s ambassador to Australia, wrote an open letter this week saying that, since he left the country he had come to love, he has rarely heard the Foreign Minister even mention the word Quad when she speaks publicly.

Mr Yamagami said that because of our current vague language, the security dialogue with India, the United States and Japan—which Australia once led—is now “languishing.”

The Defence Minister needs to speak openly too—about AUKUS. We need to talk about the money required to fund AUKUS, the new basing requirements in Perth for nuclear submarines, and the housing that needs to be built for US and UK families posted to Australia in support of AUKUS.

We need to talk about nuclear reactors—their operation, maintenance, and disposal.

Instead, we see the government refusing to discuss nuclear power at the very time they need to be open about it.

Once Labor assented to nuclear submarines, they depth-charged their own opposition to a civil nuclear industry.

Now they find themselves unable to talk about submarines and the nuclear industry we need to support it.

Social licence is built through ongoing public advocacy.

For that reason, I will applaud Professor Medcalf and his fresh initiative—of nation-wide community consultations on security. It is vital work.

But your initiative doesn’t let the Deputy Prime Minister off the hook.

It is his job to lead the national conversation on defending our shores.

Nothing is more vital to securing our future than AUKUS, but a failure of this government’s advocacy will put it at risk.

There is a recruitment and retention crisis in the Australian Defence Force.

We are not recruiting enough people and people are leaving for other career paths.

This comes at a time when we should be growing towards our 2040 target of an additional 18,500 more service men and women.

This failure of advocacy has ominous consequences.

Weakness is provocative, the historical record reflects this.

We don’t want a future Prime Minister ever repeating John Curtin’s words of 1942, where he said: “We, the allied nations, were unready…We have all made mistakes. We have all been too slow. We have all shown weakness, all the allied nations…Now our eyes are open.”

Right now, the Albanese Government is weak at articulating the threats we face.

Weak at communicating our strategy to defeat those threats. Weak at advocating for resources and capability that we need in the years ahead.

Now is not the time for vague language. Vague language means vague goals.

How can we defeat our national threats, if no one is clear about what the threat is?

We must shake ourselves from this apathy.

As we provide national security leadership, we must speak plainly about the threats.

We must avoid “pure wind.”

We must speak more honestly with the Australian people, so Defence has the social licence it needs to build its capability.

I urge you to dig deep into literature and history to find the new language we need.

I’ve found it in the feminist translation of Beowulf.

When Beowulf speaks to assure the leaders of countries in the region, he doesn’t use vagaries.

He says, with clarity: “I knew my plan when I set off for this coast. Before I put my band in that boat, already I was bent on victory. I mean to give you a show, to make you sleep safe, or be slain myself.”


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