Conscription Commentary: Calls for return of conscription raise question about what’s in it for younger Aussies

31 Jan 2024

A cat has been set among the pigeons, with Curtin University academic Dr Alexey Muraviev calling for Australian policymakers to consider reinitiating conscription to defend the nation, but many young Aussies rightfully asked why.

I know that the initial response from many young Australians, particularly those from the younger end of the Millennial bracket down, will really agitate older generations, particularly Boomers, but it is reasonable for young Australians to ask, “Why would we go to war for this?”

Controversial, right?

When you look at the challenges facing young Australians, whether being increasingly locked out of the housing market, declining economic opportunities or a collapsing relationship “market”, or concerns about the future of the world, is it any wonder they feel so dejected?

While young Australians aren’t alone in facing these challenges, they certainly are far more disconnected from the traditional concepts and values of the Western World, and importantly the bonds of community, family, and nation than previous generations.

In contrast, we see older generations, mainly the post-war Boomer generation who inherited the shade of trees they didn’t plant, remain obstinate in their belief that these younger generations (generations they raised, I might add) are simply entitled, soft, and unwilling to do the hard yards to get ahead.

This intergenerational animosity is only further compounded by the expectation by older generations that young Australians and, indeed, younger people across the developed world should lay down their lives to protect and expand an order they have no investment and, even worse, no trust in.

The rapid deterioration in the global security environment, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the successive waves of conscription that have decimated generations of Ukrainian men, coupled with the increasing hostilities in the Middle East, have all served to bring the possibility of conflict to the fore once again.

Meanwhile, the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, particularly China’s increasing hostility towards Taiwan and regional neighbours throughout the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, have only served to heighten the potential for conflict with direct and devastating consequences for Australia.

For Curtin University associate professor of National Security and Strategic Studies Dr Alexey Muraviev, Australia’s policymakers are going to have to consider a return to conscription prompting a visceral response from many young Australians.

Prepare early or get caught with our pants down?

It is no secret that Australia has a bit of a hit and miss approach when it comes to preparing for major national challenges, whether environmental like managing water resources or preventing or limiting the impact of bushfires, or in response to the challenges of great power competition like in the lead-up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Dr Muraviev’s calls for an expansion to the ADF’s manpower comes at a time when recruitment and retention challenges are once again in the public spotlight following revelations that the Royal Australian Navy will have to mothball two Anzac Class frigates early due to a lack of crew.

Yet these challenges are nothing new, particularly over the last two decades, with nations across the Western world, in particular, struggling to meet their recruitment and retention quotas.

Highlighting this, Muraviev explained, “In Europe, the changing strategic calculus about the outcome of the Ukraine war has forced the continent’s elite to accept new realities, including a potential open conflict with Russia over the next two decades.

“There are growing calls across the continent to prepare countries for what may be on the horizon, including potential mobilisation. Earlier this month, the Swedish Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin made headlines by saying that after almost 210 years of peace his country may be facing a risk of war.”

Explaining this further, Dr Muraviev added, “Earlier this week, the head of the British Army General Sir Patrick Sanders echoed Bauer’s views by proposing a ‘citizen army’ as a form of addressing the inadequate size of the UK’s standing force.

“Speaking on society’s greater involvement in national security and defence, Sir Sanders said: ‘Taking preparatory steps to enable placing our societies on a war footing when needed are now not merely desirable but essential’,” Dr Muraviev explained.

In the Australian context, this has only become increasingly prominent in the aftermath of the release of the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review in April of 2023 which echoed the need for expanded “mass” in the Australian Defence Force as a means of delivering the capabilities required to secure Australia’s national interests in this era of great power competition so close to home.

Dr Muraviev explained, “The inadequate size of the ADF’s permanent force was recognised by the former Morrison government, which committed to a 30 per cent increase to Australia’s target force of some 80,000 personnel by 2040.”

This isn’t exactly a new argument either as Muraviev detailed, saying, “The question of the ADF’s size came to the fore during Australia’s contingencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which required considerable commitments supported by regular rotations of personnel.

“As the risk of Australia being drawn into a major war increase, we are facing a short window of opportunity to address some of the shortfalls in our defence capability,” he explained further.

Why the decline of interest in serving the nation?

One of the most important question becomes, what has changed over the past two decades to drive this socio-cultural change and impact the confidence and belief in their nations?

Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. As previously mentioned, the inability of younger generations to own a meaningful slice of the nation through a family home, coupled with declining economic opportunities, particularly in Australia – where we have progressively seen the nation transition to a “knowledge” and services economy which faces wiping out millions of jobs through the increasing proliferation of artificial intelligence and deflationary pressure on wages as a result of mass migration among others – only serve to reinforce the belief that our system has failed.

Highlighting this confluence of factors in the Australian context is David Llewellyn-Smith, the chief strategist with MB Super and Nucleus Wealth, who explained that the Treasurer favoured mechanisms such as increased migration to increase the tax base, while various “sectors” of the economy favour it for their own bottom line.

“That’s at the cost to the vast majority of Australians … The winners of that immigration model – even in a per capita recession – are the banks, retailers and developers, and if you put those three together, you get what is known as the growth lobby, and they push for the model to continue because it’s good for them,” Llewellyn-Smith said.

The impact of this papering over the cracks inherent in the national economy is reinforced by comments made by AMP chief economist Dr Shane Oliver, who explained: “We’re pumping more people in, but we’re not producing more stuff per person … We’re inflating our economy by pumping more people in, but it’s not giving us growth in living standards per person – we’re actually going backwards, and also productivity is going backwards.”

This has a dramatic impact on young Australians’ attitudes and appetites for defending Australia, something explained by Daniel Wild, director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who stated, “As a result of years of relentless attack on our values by the cultural and media elites, young Australians are now so ashamed of themselves and their country that they would rather flee Australia than stay and fight if the need arose.”

The report and polling commissioned of 1,000 Australians by the IPA detailed: “Only 32 per cent of those aged 18–24 said they would stay and fight, and 40 per cent said they would leave the country (28 per cent were unsure), and 35 per cent of those aged 25–34 said that would stay and fight, while 38 per cent said they would leave the country (27 per cent were unsure).”

Wild added: “Young Australians don’t want to fight for Australia because the cultural elites in schools, universities, and the media have convinced them that there is nothing worth fighting for.”

This uncomfortable reality is only further compounded by the aforementioned financial and economic factors that disproportionately impact young Australians.

As if to prove this, public commentary on the IPA’s own report highlighted this, with comments ranging from, “Young people can’t afford a home to live here, it should be land owners’ primary responsibility to put up the fight”, and “Our youth of fighting age are the poorest of any of the generations previously before them. Again, I say, why would they stay and fight?”

With other public feedback including this comment, “Why would they stay and fight? This country has no national identity, no culture and poor leadership in both the main political parties.”

Hell no, we won’t go!!

All of these factors combine to result in a rather robust response from young Australians who consistently feel abandoned by policymakers and their own parents.

A quick search across social media revealed a number of responses that only serve to reinforce these points, including the Libertarian Victoria X page telling the Australian government to “Go.Draft.Yourself”.

X political economist Philip Soos asked, “Conscription in Australia – would you fight for the government against the Russians? If the government brought back conscription, there would be an immediate society-wide backlash that would make the freedom protests look like a tea party in comparison.”

These were further expanded on by X Page YadaYadaCapital, who, parodying the jingoist tone of the 1997 film Starship Trooperssaid, “Young people from all over Australia are joining up to fight for the future. They’re doing their part, are you? Join the Army and save the world. Service guarantees Home Ownership.”

Omnicentrist added, “Conscription. Russians would eat them alive. Look at Ukraine. If Australia was at war with Russia, it means some other country dragged us in. No to foreign wars. Australia first.” Meanwhile, Sonny_1NC added, “We refuse to be conscripted to go to war for Politicians. Put those Albanese, Wong, Marles and Dreyfus on the front line with their own children to go fight in a war. We will not die for these Politicians gains”.

These are just a number of attitudes expressed publicly on X, turning to Facebook and the coverage of Dr Muraviev’s opinion piece, we saw further responses including Anthony Ellison, who said, “Alternative headline, ‘Day after they have been told they can’t be proud of being Australian, Australians told they will be conscripted to fight for a country they’re not allowed to be proud of‘.”

Meanwhile Johann Wyss added, “Yeah good luck getting the kids you robbed of a future by making home ownership a pipe dream fight for you.”

All of this combines to reinforce an uncomfortable reality that as a nation, Australia is increasingly divided and faces immense domestic challenges if we’re going to survive and thrive in the era of great power competition.

Final thoughts

Australians seem reluctant at best or indeed, even oblivious at worst that the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar” and our own home, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

Declining economic opportunity, coupled with the rapidly deteriorating global and regional balance of power and the increased politicisation of every aspect of contemporary life, only serves to exacerbate the very reality of disconnection, apathy, and helplessness felt by many Australians.

This attitude is only serving to be compounded and creates a growing sentiment that we are speeding towards a predestined outcome, thus disempowering the Australian people and, to a lesser extent, policymakers as we futilely confront seemingly insurmountable challenges with little-to-no benefit and at a high-risk/reward calculation.

Taking into account the costs and implications, it is therefore easy to understand why so many Australians, both in the general public and within our decision-making circles, seem to have checked out and are quite happy to allow the nation to continue to limp along in mediocrity because, well, it is easier than having lofty ambitions.

If both Australian policymakers and the Australian public don’t snap out of the comforting security blanket that is the belief in the “End of History”, the nation will continue to rapidly face an uncomfortable and increasingly dangerous new reality, where we truly are no longer the masters of our own destiny.

All of this combines to form a rather confronting and disconcerting outcome for our long-term national security and one that requires remedying immediately if Australia is to be positioned to capitalise on the truly epoch-defining industrial, economic, political, and strategic shifts currently underway across the globe.

After all, how can we ask and reasonably expect Australians, particularly young Australians, to put the national interest ahead of their own when the nation doesn’t seem to account for their own interests, particularly when taken to the end of its logical extension, the national interest is at its core, the individual’s interest?

Ultimately, Australia and Australians face these two concurrent yet interconnected challenges, which stand as the greatest challenges of our age, so which way, Australia?

Do we want to be competitive, consequential and thriving, or do we want to be “steady and sturdy” in our managed decline?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section , or get in touch at [email protected] or at [email protected].