10 December 2020

National Security College boss says foreign powers view states and territories as "weak links"

| Dominic Giannini
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Andrew Barr, Yvette Berry

The ACT needs to develop its own national security unit, which would sit in the Chief Minister’s Directorate, a security expert says. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT Government needs to create its own national security task force in the face of foreign powers viewing the states and territories as “weak links” in Australia’s national security infrastructure, according to the head of the ANU’s National Security College.

If states and territories failed to develop their own national security units – stacked with officials who have high-level security clearances and can access classified security information – it would be akin to Australia kneecapping itself in an “unforgiving new world of international rivalry”, Professor Rory Medcalf said.

“State and territory governments need to grasp that they are increasingly at the front line of national security and they are there to stay,” he said in his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday (9 December).

“States and territories are where it gets real.

“They don’t deal with the abstractions of diplomatic talking points or strategic analysis, but the tangible day-to-day elements of national resilience and national vulnerability – critical infrastructure, frontline geography, and the daily decisions and livelihoods of Australian citizens.”

Professor Rory Medcalf

Head of the National Security College Professor Rory Medcalf. Photo: ANU.

Premiers and Chief Ministers would need to have their own national security unit in their department to help counter foreign influence and cyberattacks, and stock the unit with people who have the appropriate security clearances, he said..

“The unfortunate secret of State and Territory governments is that they do not have staff with the security clearances to access the wealth of intelligence and security advice that the Australian Government and its allies can provide,” Professor Medcalf said.

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In response to the comments by Professor Medcalf, the ACT Government said it has a dedicated Security and Emergency Management Branch within the Justice and Community Safety Directorate and is currently conducting a Government-wide review to identify where the greatest security risks are.

“This branch works in close collaboration with the Commonwealth and other states and territories to provide and coordinate national security policy advice for the government on matters including counter-terrorism, countering violent extremism and countering foreign interference,” the ACT Government spokesperson said.

“The ACT Government has ensured it has the right people with the right clearances in the right positions to access and leverage this information.

“The ACT Government is cognisant of the wealth of information, both classified and unclassified, held by the Commonwealth and the private sector on cyber and other security threats.”

The ACT is also in the final stages of developing a new cybersecurity policy and a cybersecurity emergency plan after an ACT Auditor-General report in June found the ACT Government’s cybersecurity policy is lacking, with a low level of data security awareness among staff.

READ MORE Cybersecurity audit criticises ACT Government on the same day PM reveals national cyber attack

The Auditor-General found that 89 per cent of critical information and communications technology systems did not have a current system security risk management plan, and there was “a low level of data security awareness among staff in most agencies examined in the audit”.

“This increases the likelihood of a data breach and its potential impact,” the report said.

Around 15 per cent of these plans have been updated since and over two-thirds of the remaining critical ICT systems have existing plans which the ACT Government is in the process of reviewing.

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