Address to the International Peace Bureau Workshop 16 October 2021

I wish to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land, in my case the Woonarua People. I pay my respects to Aboriginal elders past and present and to leaders yet to emerge and acknowledge the land was never ceded.

Thank you to the Independent Peaceful Australia Network and the International Peace Bureau for the opportunity to speak this evening, and to Vince and Matilda. May I also congratulate the students at Macquarie University in Sydney for their research, in collaboration with the Medical Association for the Prevention of War,  into the harm caused by Australian exports of weapons .

It feels like a life-time ago that I was trying to piece together the Australian Government’s defence exports regime. My research was being reported because it had uncovered the scale of export certificates to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, countries accused of war crimes in Yemen. I’m very pleased that many others collaboratively have continued and are continuing this important work.

At about that time I was also digging deeper into the outcomes of Australian air strikes in Iraq and Syria. The response to one of my early Freedom of Information requests on Defence was that the “The Department does not specifically collect authoritative, and therefore accurate, data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria, and certainly does not track such statistics.

But my research wasn’t in vain: I kept going, and in this case it formed the basis of a larger story which nudged Defence into publishing a fortnightlyreport  summarising the targets and locations of Australian airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

So I say to the Macquarie University students, I look forward to reading about the positive changes you prompt by your researches in advancing us towards a world without war.

I think Vince succinctly described the nature of the US Militarisation of Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region.  The United States certainly wants allies to be hostile towards China in order to achieve American objectives.

That much is said in the 2018 ‘Global Trends in Democracy: Background, US Policy, and Issues for Congress’ report : ‘In reality, US alliances and partnerships have been deeply rooted in American self-interest….by enlisting other nations in the promotion of a world favourable to American interests…they have reduced the price America pays for global leadership and enhanced the advantages America enjoys over any geopolitical rival…And although these alliances and partnerships …have required the persistent use of diplomacy, economic power, and other tools of statecraft, they have ultimately rested on a foundation of military strength.

So AUKUS and ANZUS are designed to facilitate US hegemony, to legitimise what the US is doing, fuelled by US exceptionalism and paranoia. Could this be the legacy of large-scale mass surveillance of every citizen in the world? In other words, have the spies been spooked by their own shadow?

Not only does an increased presence give the United States greater control over the Australian political process, we are eagerly assisting the United States to achieve its ambition of Australia becoming a major base for US bombers, naval vessels and military personnel, and hence an obvious target in any war, without any proper examination of Australia’s separate economic, political and strategic interests.  Pine Gap, the top secret US spy installation near Alice Springs, the largest US intelligence base outside the United States, is a classic example.  Since it began operating in the early 1970s Australia has been denied access to its facilities and operations and misled by calculated omissions and more than occasional lies about the nature and purpose of its activities.

What started as a facility for “space research”, as the public were told, translated to arms control, satellite monitoring of nuclear weapons and other potentially dangerous military activities; then it was one for intercepting secret foreign power and military communications as well; then it also became a collector and processor of widespread communications data enabling its use for purely offensive military objectives like targeting drone strikes – and incidentally killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children – on the other side of the world. It has been involved in every US war since 9/11.

At the moment we know it does all of this  as a vital fighting base for the US military providing real-time intelligence support for US military combatant commands with the result that for the last decade, to quote the late Professor Des Ball “We’re now linked in to this global network where intelligence and operations have become essentially fused and Pine Gap is a key node in that whole network, that war machine, if you want to use that term, which is doing things which are very, very difficult, I think, as an Australian, to justify.” That’s quoted from a very worthwhile article by Richard Tanter published in Nautilus on 21 January this year.

Pine Gap is also a route for channelling, analysing and distributing unimaginable quantities of data, down to the level of any individual cell phone,  vacuumed up by US spy satellites, including the data of Australians. None of this information has been volunteered to the Australian public, even in general terms.  We – and in that expression I think I can include our elected representatives – only discovered the last bit through the Snowdon revelations.

What’s next? Arnhem Space Centre, the nearby launch site which undoubtedly will be capable of launching hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads, and in which NASA and US defence contractors are involved, expects to be launching next year. Either Pine Gap or the rocket launch site alone should be seen as an obvious target in any potential conflict; together, they’re a nuclear bullseye.  But still we can’t be trusted with the truth about what’s going on so we have no way of knowing whether these things are in our interests or actually against them.

One way of defining Australia’s national interests – not one that I necessarily agree with – is Australia’s ability to do business anywhere, but particularly in the region, cheaply and on its own terms. Even if it means turning a blind eye to human rights abuses or criticising other nations of engaging in the very conduct we’ve been engaged in for decades. eg East Timor, West Papua

The Defence Incoming Brief to Peter Dutton includes this: ‘While the post-Cold War order will be characterised by an increasingly assertive and powerful China, contesting and constraining China’s efforts to assert regional dominance will require more effective networks of cooperation, both in our region and globally. These networks cannot rely only on partnering with nations that share our values, they must be interest based – to balance China we will need the cooperation of liberal and illiberal states alike. It is only through these types of networks that we are going to be able to build the counter leverage we need to preserve a regional and global order consistent with our interests.’

In other words, we should be prepared to ally ourselves with anyone, irrespective of their legitimacy or policies, to try to contain China. One couldn’t be more hypocritical given our public statements about the importance of human rights.

I should add that the same Defence Brief barely touches on security risks posed by climate change even though we know, as Defence FOI requests show, that Defence is already planning for extreme climate change impacts.  It references the need to “prepare for significantly more disaster support operations and potentially operations involving support to the civil power such as policing the population under exaggerated stresses such as food and water security”.

My concerns about a militarised response to the consequences of climate change were heightened when it was reported in September last year that a new civil defence agency will be housed under the Department of Home Affairs to lead a national response to emergencies such as bushfires, pandemics and large-scale cyber attacks.

Shortly afterwards Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo said that climate change risks and pandemics warrant a security rethink.

It then emerged that national security risks sparked by climate change have prompted the Bureau of Meteorology to forge ties with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and that the Bureau is now part of an international group sharing weather information with an impact on national security.

More importantly, in 2019 General Angus Campbell gave a speech in which he warned what the world could expect to see from climate change: 

“In about 10 years from now global warming above pre-industrial levels is set to rise by 50%. At 1.5 degrees of warming we can expect more significant impacts. Particularly in regards to oceans, low-lying areas and human health. The poor and most vulnerable will be hardest hit. Livelihoods lost. Food scarce. Populations displaced. Diseases spreading. And this now looks like our best-case scenario.”

Which brings me to the question I’ve been contemplating:

How do you stop a war? 

When I asked my 2 year old son this, he responded, “I don’t know”. In fact, I don’t think many people do.  It’s an important question to consider and to try and find answers to.

In January 2003, GCHQ translator, Katharine Gun, tried to stop the Iraq invasion by leaking to the press the plan for an illegal US-UK spy operation which would secure UN authorisation for the invasion. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act.  Daniel Hale leaked information on U.S. drone warfare to the press and was sentenced to 45 months in prison. Chelsea Manning spent 7 years in prison for leaking classified information to Wikileaks, including about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Julian Assange remains in a super max prison and Ed Snowden remains in exile for their roles in the publication of material in the public interest.

In other words, the price paid for trying to stop a war is too high for any individual. If we are stop wars it must involve many people working collaboratively, endlessly and all against the reality that our political leaders won’t debate or even weigh up costs and benefits. Instead they defer to violence using a moral justification of “sacred values”—subjective beliefs or convictions that trump all other considerations but which can’t be accurately described or quantified. We’re up against the profit motives of weapons manufacturers, industrialists, bankers and others. And we’re up against government secrecy and war propaganda.

Polls show that Australians do not want conflict with China, so we need to fund further independent polls to get a comprehensive and accurate picture of public opinion; we need to bolster DFAT and diplomatic engagement; we need to provide resources for independent media and reputable voices in the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific to keep us informed about what is happening on the ground and to provide a counter narrative to those working against diplomatic settlements, and we need to elevate the voices of First Nations Peoples who are opposed to the use of their land for military purposes.

We know the Afghanistan war will prompt the US to examine how to fight the next war more cheaply and with less other costs or fallout. Those plans will already be in the making, in secrecy.

Here in Australia, many organisations are working collaboratively towards moving Australia towards a peaceful independent future, including:

Australian War Powers Reform which is seeking to reform the War Powers under which the executive government can commit troops internationally. They’re campaigning for independent reviews of Australia’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and public reports on all aspects of them.

I think open parliamentary voting – preferably conscious voting – on any decision to go to war would ensure that defence and foreign policy decisions are decided democratically, independently of the United States and with evidence being tabled and the purpose, costs, benefits and consequences of military action openly debated. Each representative would have to account to their electorate for their vote.

Independent & Peaceful Australia Inquiry is a current national public inquiry into the costs and consequences of the Australia-US Alliance for the Australian people. It invites proposals that could help to achieve a genuinely independent and peaceful foreign policy for Australia

Hundreds of submissions have been received and recurring themes and consistent messages are already emerging. But one theme that is ubiquitous throughout the submissions and bear repeating war is a choice rather than an inevitability in defence and foreign policy decisions, and the consequences can be grave.  This is evidenced by what we have seen play out in Afghanistan. Diplomacy was shelved there 20 years ago when we decided to follow the US in going to war and the immense costs to everyone involved significantly outweighed any benefit of having done so.

The submissions have highlighted that the Australian public has been sidelined from the debate relating to Australia’s defence and foreign policy decisions, particularly in relation to its alliance with the United States.  Our foreign policy is rarely publicly discussed, let alone democratically decided, and this is despite the obvious popular interest in the area. The reluctance of politicians to offer new policy and the influence of lobbyists who are not pursuing Australia’s interest is of great concern to the public. All these things confirm a yawning gap between public attitudes and government policies.

Many people have contributed to this Inquiry, the first of its kind giving people a chance to have their say on the matter. The volume of submissions the Inquiry has received indicates that findings based on them will be representative of the views held by the majority of concerned Australians, and most of them recognise that Australia’s current trajectory destines us to a future of conflict.

The Inquiry’s findings, when published, will be of considerable historical significance, first as an historical reference point for those who in the future will assess the efficacy of our government’s decisions and actions, and secondly as a clarion call for the use of reason, diplomacy and the common sense of the electorate and all of our elected representatives in making decisions about alliances and warfare in what really are Australia’s best interests.

The report will be published and launched in February, and we can circulate it through IPB.

Although I don’t claim to know how to stop war, may I suggest that the key to doing so lies in popular involvement.  If people make themselves heard in sufficient numbers politicians listen and governments react. If pro-war rhetoric and propaganda are critically dissected for people their peddlers may not desist, but at least they’ll be called out, exposed and hopefully ignored.  We should draw strength from the knowledge that most thinking people are actually already on the same page: what we need to do is mobilise them.

Thank you for your time.


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