Defence has not emerged as an issue in this year’s federal election. But the subject appears to resonate in the small Sydney federal electorate of Grayndler. Nadyat El Gawley reports.
In the ABC’s online election survey Vote Compass, Grayndler ranks third out of 10 electorates that want to see less spending on defence. On asylum seekers, support for those who arrive here by boat places it at number one; and on increasing foreign aid, action on climate change and banning live exports, the electorate comes in the top five of all electorates surveyed.
The area has been at the forefront of social and cultural change. It was here that mothers from the Save Our Sons (SOS) movement stood outside the barracks in Marrickville’s Addison Rd, to protest against conscription and the Vietnam War. And it was here where the pioneering Sidetrack Theatre told stories of immigrants who’d settled in the area over the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. This was an era when migrant stories were not heard in mainstream arts institutions.
So it’s in this progressive thinking electorate that takes in about 25 suburbs in the inner west, that Jo Errey and Nick Dean have organised the Marrickville Peace Group (MPG).
Rewind to October last year when Australia was elected as a non permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a letter the MPG wrote to the then Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Bob Carr, and to Australia’s UN ambassador, Mr. Gary Quinlan. The group was concerned about Australia’s position on US drone attacks and the human rights of civilians caught up in those strikes.
Drones are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs). The UAV’s carry weapons and are operated remotely. Last year, the Australian edition of Business Insider reported that one version, “the X-47B, can carry 4,500 pounds of weapons and operate all on its own.” These weapons have been blamed for hundreds of civilian deaths in undeclared wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Consequently, when the Marrickville Peace Group got a reply from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) telling them drones have been an “effective tool in global counter-terrorism efforts,” they were dismayed.
‘That made us bristle a bit you know… because I’ve absolutely no doubt the people who’ve been subjected to them feel terrorised,” says Nick Deane.
Undeterred, the group asked Bob Carr in another letter for assurances that US facilities here are not being used to guide drones. Unfortunately the reply they received didn’t effectively answer their questions.
That was just before revelations in the Age by Philip Dorling about the role that Pine Gap, the Australian US joint facility in Central Australia plays in guiding armed US drones.
Since then, the Victorian based Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch have jointly asked the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism to include Australia in their current investigation into civilian drone deaths. This investigation was launched earlier this year, and as reported by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism expects to make recommendations to the UN general assembly by the [northern] autumn.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy & Research, Emily Howie said: “It is absolutely essential that Australia is accountable where it is involved in the deadly use of force.” The Centre has taken a strong stance on the possibility of Australia’s involvement in guiding US weaponised drones, and they say that until the Age’s revelations, very little was known about our role in the program.
“It’s not okay for Australia to be involved in the deadly use of force overseas without informing the public,” says Ms Howie, “the Australian public deserves to know what is being done in [its] name… on this issue which is a matter of life and death.”
While the Australian Government hasn’t officially responded to the Age’s revelations, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, said the party was opposed to facilities in Australia being used to guide drone strikes. In an email during the last week of the election campaign, Senator Ludlam said what was particularly “odious [for him], was the removal of human agency from the operation.”
So shouldn’t we have some control over what happens in joint spy facilities such as Pine Gap? Former diplomat Bruce Haigh thinks we should be able to.
“It’s meant to be a Joint facility, so in theory we should be able to say … that we don’t want Pine Gap to be used that way or we don’t want to be a party to that,” he says, “of course we’re not going to do that because we actually agree.”
Haigh, who was posted to countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, says we can’t have a debate here about the US alliance because both major parties occupy the same space.
“Both political parties are trampling on each other on the same piece of turf, so they can’t have a debate … they both agree with the alliance,” he says.
Haig believes the pressure for change needs to come from the grass roots; from party branches or from within defence itself. It’s an issue about which we should be “thinking independently” and having “a more sophisticated” discussion about our ties and the relationship we have with the global superpower.
“Why do we want to put all our eggs in the American basket when America only ever does things for its own needs or requirements,” he says.
Senator Ludlam shares these concerns. The Greens have long opposed the US alliance and their defence policy puts forward notions of human security that are tied to climate change, food and water security and a military force that acts defensively rather than offensively.
“Australia can have an alliance with the United States that is based on a relationship of mutual respect, rather than our country being used as a military and spy base with no control over how the US facilities and the forces based here operate.” says Ludlam.
Opposition to Australia’s US alliance has traditionally included a resistance to participating in foreign wars. Not only for the argument that we shouldn’t be involved, but also for the reason that the decision to get involved is not made by parliament. In Australia, it’s the Prime Minister and Cabinet who decide.
“We’ve never independently made a decision to go to war … those decision have been made for us, and we presume deep down I think, that those decisions will be made for us again,” says Haigh.
Some have argued it’s about time this was changed through a war powers bill which transfers decision making from the executive branch of government (the prime minister and cabinet) to parliament. A passionate advocate for human rights and social justice, the former diplomat, agrees that such a bill is needed. But to get there he says Australia needs to have other conversations and debates about “becoming truly independent and taking charge of its own affairs.”
“We’ll only get there if you have a war powers bill lobby group. A really strong group that builds up and builds up and goes across all of those middle class suburbs on the north shore [of Sydney] and says no, we don’t do that. There’s no constituency out there. I mean there was a constituency for us to get out of Vietnam on the part of students who might be conscripted and on the part of parents who had children who were going to be conscripted … it galvanised people. There’s nothing to galvanise people.”
While both Errey and Deane from MPG agree the issue presents some challenges, the group has organised a petition to the federal senate to “require full parliamentary debate before decisions are made about the deployment of Australian troops to overseas conflict.”
The Australian Democrats attempted to introduce a war powers bill several times since 1985, without any success. Senator Ludlam reintroduced the bill in 2010, but again it didn’t pass. Ludlam, who has been re-elected to the federal senate, says he plans to reintroduce the bill to the new parliament.
Ludham told Reportage Online it is essential checks and balances on the powers of the executive are maintained.
“We saw in 2003 what can happen when a handful of people make a decision to go to war in secret, behind closed doors and on a false premise,” he says. “Australia was involved in an illegal war in Iraq that was justified using evidence later shown to be false.”
Errey agrees this is a reason for change now. “Before there is another emergency, before we commit to yet another war, let’s revisit this war powers bill so that it’s in legislation.”
“Even if it’s a democratic decision to commit troops to war, at least we know where it’s coming from and who said what …there’s some kind of accountability for it.”
Some of the arguments against such a bill have included fears the minor parties will oppose going to war, and that any full parliamentary debate will mean that sensitive information needs to be revealed to the public.
But Errey says there is an exception built into it; and that is if Australia comes under attack. As for revealing sensitive information to parliament, Senator Ludlam’s response is that it’s not a military but a political decision.
“This Bill calls for the government of the day to make the case as to why peaceful diplomatic efforts are exhausted and force is the only option … clear goals, a risk and cost benefit analysis [are] envisaged, not the disclosure of classified military information … that would compromise the country’s security,” says Ludlam. “Many countries [eg Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Turkey and Sweden] must submit the overseas deployment of military forces to a debate and vote in parliament.”
What does the community think
There’s some sympathy for this view on the streets of the inner west. Christine who works in Marrickville’s Lamia Supermarket says: “The government has to have a little respect for the public [and] ask us… the public have to know more because I don’t want to see the soldiers being killed.”
Grayndler resident Peta agrees: “We’ve gone into war situations as an ally in my lifetime, but each time those decisions have been clouded and I can see how complex those decision have been.”
“[I]’d hate to think that … the government of the day … would be doing anything that wasn’t really bi partisan when it came to sending our troops off somewhere [and] that didn’t have the ideological support of the parliament.”
Rachel, who manages a bookshop in Marrickville, wants to see her tax dollar go towards social rather than military causes. And she says that there needs to be more transparency and discussion.
“I think that there needs to be a discourse about the kind of places we’re sending troops whether it be for peace keeping or military operations,” she says.
Although there hasn’t been a huge response to the petition, both Deane and Errey say when they do talk to people about a war powers bill, most either agree or are surprised that it doesn’t exist.
Jingoism, nationalism and asylum seekers
Bruce Haigh was a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal for six years, and he sees a connection between Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and the rise of “nationalism and jingoism” in the country. It perhaps explains why something like a war powers bill continually gets rejected.
For him, “demonising people who come by boats” creates a paranoia and a mentality of being “under siege” from “outsiders and invaders.” The connection to nationalism from there can be easily made.
“I think Australia in many ways is ready to go to war because it’s been building this collectivisation if you like, of the national psyche, and building it around jingoism, nationalism and chauvinism,” he says.
“You know, there’s this whole business of prime ministers going to individual funerals of individual soldiers. I’ve never seen anything like it. When the kids died in Vietnam, they were flown home … with the Australian flag on the coffin and maybe a few military representatives. But it’s been elevated to this point. So, in a sense Australians are being geared for such an eventuality.”
On the eve of the election, the ABC’s Vote Compass declared Grayndler the most left wing electorate in the country. It’s been welcome news to many here, so conceivably, this may be a good place in which to organise peace groups, and take on the big national issues.
Reportage Online contacted Grayndler MP, Anthony Albanese, but he was not available for comment.