ADC Forum, Australian Leadership Retreat address

25 March 2023

I’d like to start in 431 BCE in Athens, where at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War – a war that would go on to nearly three decades – Athenians gathered for their annual funeral service to honour the dead.

As it was customary at the time, an eminent Athenian would be appointed by the state to provide the eulogy, the funeral oration.

In 431 BCE, that task and that honour fell to Pericles.

It was his departure from the convention of the day for the oration to eulogise those that fell in battle, and instead focus on the virtues of the state.

The virtues of Athenian society, the virtues of democracy, and how they were differentiated with their enemy – Sparta.

And he did this, potentially with some knowledge, that the war would go on for some time, and that Athenian society would need to be mobilised through a sense of unity, a sense of purpose, and a sense of collective identity.

Last weekend I was on Thursday Island to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

It is a remarkable chapter in our national history, but rates but a footnote in one official history.

It is a story that I am determined more Australians understand and know about.

Because it teaches us much about who we are, and the nature of collective identity.

In 1942 and 1943, when the war came to Australia, Horn Island in the Torres Strait, second only to Darwin, was the most bombed part of Australia by the Imperial forces of Japan.

And this 65,000 year-old community of Torres Strait Islanders came together and almost every single male of military service age voluntarily enlisted into what was then the Australian Imperial Force.

Even though at the time they were not recognised with the same rights as citizens, even though they were paid less than their counterparts, even though they were prevented from rising above the rank of corporal.

And even though it took 40 years for them to be back paid and awarded with the medals that they earned.

Theirs is a very powerful example of national identity, collective identity, and it’s convening power.

On 24 February last year, almost a decade on from when the war between Russia and Ukraine began, we saw and we saw proof once again the power of national unity and will founded in national identity.

Against all expectations, and certainly against any quantitative analysis when you correlate the forces between Russia and Ukraine.

Ukrainian people have demonstrated the power of unity and will.

And so I think the question of national identity, and who are we in the 21st century, is the wellspring and the framework in which leadership in our nation today needs to consider the many facets of our society.

How do we conceive of our amazing endowment?

Our geography, our stewardship of a large percentage of the Earth’s surface - both the land mass and the oceans that surround us, and our claim to more than 40 per cent of the Antarctic continent?

How we perceive our endowment and being in the world’s top 15 economies, a convening power, a vibrant, diverse society, the human capital that we enjoy, the alliances and partnerships which are the envy of many others.

Our capacity to be an energy and food superpower.

Our natural resources, our capacity for innovation, and our capacity to draw on 65,000 years of human history on our continent.

So, that for me as a soldier, is the foundation question and the wellspring. It is important because of the world we live in.

The term ‘our strategic circumstances have changed’ is oft uttered in our commentary, but what does that actually mean?

What I’d offer to you is the context of what has changed.

Firstly, it can be found by an understanding of our history.

Pax Americana, that period that the benevolent victors of the Second World War created in terms of the global system – the international system and its institutions – is an historical anomaly in the arc of human history and global power shifts.

We have an opportunity to learn about sovereignty in a globalised world, potentially in a post-peak globalisation world, and look at new models, one of which Dr Parag Khanna provides for us in his theory of new regionalism.

As we heard with this mornings’ first speaker, there is much to be learnt from the Age of Empires and how those empires transitioned national power.

We have an opportunity to learn from our most recent past.

The thinking that shaped our defence policy and international foreign policy in the 1980s has affected and shaped us for the last three decades.

So thinking very carefully about our thinking today and its impact over the next few decades I think is worthy of a few moments of reflection.

And finally, the wars of choice that we have fought in over the last 20 years, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not touch Australia and they did not touch the vast majority of Australians.

So what’s changed in terms of our strategic circumstances is that in an era of great power competition, competition, crisis and conflict are a national endeavour – not something for the military element of national power to deal with.

And in prosecuting a national endeavour, for me statecraft is really the aim for national leadership.

That’s the mobilisation and orchestration of all elements of national power.

It is bounded in unity – national unity, unity of purpose; relies on social cohesion, relies on the means – the economy – to generate agency.

It relies on a different relationship between industry and private sector, and it relies on the incredible capacity of the academy.

If I could start to bring to close my comments by focusing in on the military element of national power.

It ought to reflect our national identity, the challenges and the threats to our national identity and our way of life, and be framed in relation to all elements of nation power.

It ought to be relevant and credible relative to our aspiration, to our allies and partners, and to our potential adversaries.

It ought to be respectful of the arc of human history and the history of warfare.

The ever-changing balance between the enduring human nature of warfare, and its continued changing character.

And it ought to be resourced, because a strategy without means is an illusion.

You’ll forgive me by ending with a bit of product placement for your Army, but it is a national institution, a profession and a force that I am privileged to lead every day.

That question of national identity – purpose – is most relevant to every single one of the soldiers who serve in your Army, because service requires subordinating oneself to purpose and other people.

Our soldiers sign a blank cheque to our society which is ultimately payable with their lives.

They are magnificent, they are committed, they are capable, and they are indefatigable.

They will do whatever our society asks of them, and they deserve to know why they are being asked to do what they need do, for whom, and for what.

It is the wellspring of a soldier’s decision and choice to serve our nation.

We owe them the best opportunity for mission success, and the best opportunity to return home to their families.

Every day I strive, and our leadership strives, and I hope our national leadership strives, to be worthy of that service.

Thank you very much.