The choice of cyber coordinator reflects weakened cyber capability
Cyber breach

Australia's new Cyber Coordinator appointment - another short term fix over capability building.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

One measure of whether a government is ready to manage uncertainty and deal with crises is the tools it has at its disposal. Too few tools, and government are left with too few options, often too little nuance in dealing with the messiness of the world, and more than likely too often at the cost of some other need or priority.

Unfortunately, Australian governments over the years have opted for ‘easy’—but expensive—solutions to what are generally foreseeable but inconvenient problems. They turn to the military.

The military is, after all, is a tool of the civilian government. Over the years, a long habit of use of ‘aid to the civil power’ provisions to help during national disasters was reinforced during the post September 11 years to bolster responses in the event of a terrorist attack. Labor governments have favoured the use of military assets to support humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Increasingly, the ADF has been used as support to state emergency services. The military were used during the Northern Territory Intervention, initiated by the Howard Government but continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments, and a military officer sits inside Home Affairs commanding Operation Sovereign Borders, the designation given to the ADF component of Australia’s border control.

Increasingly, military officers have taken senior policy roles, including in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, blurring the lines between civilian and military functions. During COVID, Prime Minister Morrison recruited Lieutenant General JJ Frewen to run the COVID taskforce; LTGEN Frewen is currently Chief of Joint Capabilities in Defence.

And last week, the government appointed a senior Air Force officer as cyber coordinator. By all accounts a well-liked, capable, and highly regarded officer, Air Marshall Darren Goldie was promoted into the role and will return to the Air Force at the end of his secondment. This post is not about AM Goldie personally—I wish him all the best—but the nature of government choices on these matters.

For a government concerned with the decay of capability within the civilian Australian Public Service, to look to the military for what is at heart a civilian coordination, governance and capability-building function is curious. The depth of cyber talent available in Australia naturally begs the question as to why a military officer, with no cyber experience, was appointed.

It portends a fundamental weakness at the heart of government.

It suggests a lack of patience—and possibly wherewithal—within government for the attraction, selection, and retention of the sort of leadership needed with technological nous. That’s worrying.

After all, cyber is hardly a short-term problem, one that is going to go away or that will be solved within the span of the appointment. And cyber is only one of a broad wavefront of technological-based change that will affect Australian society, its economy and security—consider AI, quantum technologies, biotech and, of course, nuclear.

It may be that this role in particular posed problems for potential recruits—it was, after all, offered for only 18 months, provided with little support, laden with responsibilities, yet beholden to a newly appointed Deputy Secretary in Home Affairs. A senior military officer is unlikely to put up with such bureaucratic entanglement, even in another department—which says much about the balance of military versus civilian power in Canberra.

But a military fix, on secondment, will not address the deeper systemic issues evident in Canberra. The decision itself is emblematic of internal Canberra politics playing out, with competing power plays, depending on the issues, between Home Affairs, Defence, the intelligence community, law enforcement, Attorney-General’s, Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister and Cabinet.

And it means that yet again, the Australian business and technology community will have to build relationships with a relative unknown who has little experience in either business or technology. Given that AM Goldie is only on secondment, both the domestic and international community could reasonably question the government’s commitment and staying power on these issues.

Last, and perhaps most worryingly, cyber is probably the last area where a democracy would want a military quick fix. Cyber is simply the dark side—the things that can go wrong—of digital technologies. Focussing only on the bad—the ‘cyber scumbags’—ignores the good and lends an autocratic bent to any response to cyber. Too often, the response of the national security community is to shut doors, bar windows, prevent disclosure, and hold systems away from open scrutiny and testing.

In our democracy, because digital technologies are so embedded in our daily lives, our social interactions, our economic systems, we need to ensure they are open, exposed to, tested by, and held accountable to citizens. Only then can government establish the trust needed by citizens in government and its behaviour—chasing cyber scumbags has a sense of retribution, not justice.

The military appointment might get the government out of a hole of its own making, but of itself does little to prevent other holes, or ongoing digging. In continually falling back on the military—no guarantee of results, in and of itself—for delivery and increasingly governance and policy, the government is weakening its own decision-making and democratic institutions. For robust civilian control, we need informed civilian capability, with deep expertise and capable leadership.

That won’t happen overnight but requires focus and investment—and the government needs to step up and make the hard calls now. The needs are hardly unforeseeable—we know now we need deep expertise and capability in range of technological domains, and the leadership able to bridge policy, strategy, and delivery across those domains.

We need decisive leadership to break the internal battles that so cripple Canberran policy and delivery, that frustrate politicians and bureaucrats alike. Current reform efforts are trimmings: deep structural and leadership change is needed. Ministers need to stop falling back on short-term solutions, whether relying on the military or consultancies, and get serious about building civilian expertise inside our public service institutions.