In January, the federal government launched its new Defence Export Strategy, which aims to turn Australia into one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters. The strategy will raise government assistance for arms exports, making Australia more like Britain and other major arms-exporting states.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the strategy as “a positive plan to boost Australian industry, increase investment, and create more jobs for Australian businesses”. However, it appears that the policy is being driven by corporations seeking profits at the expense of human lives and security.
Andrew Smith of Britain-based organisation, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), told Green Left Weekly “it is very concerning that the Australian government is looking to increase arms exports. This can only lead to greater war, conflict and instability.”
Australian-based arms companies were given the opportunity to express their views on export policy during a 2014–15 inquiry into government support for military exports conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Their submissions reflected a general belief that the government should do more to help them sell their products overseas. A common complaint was the government support for exports was inadequate compared to the level of assistance provided in top arms-exporting states, such as Britain, the US and France.
Since the committee tabled its report on the inquiry in December 2015, the Coalition government has taken several steps to rectify these perceived deficiencies. These include recognising the arms industry as a “fundamental input to capability” and establishing a new $230 million Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC). CDIC is intended to be “the front door for Industry” to the Department of Defence (DoD) and its functions include providing export assistance.
These developments have been welcomed by the arms industry. Last October, the CEO of Australian combat shipbuilder Austal said the government had produced “one of the best bits of defence and industrial policy that I've seen written anywhere around the world”.
Now the government is establishing a new Australian Defence Export Office (ADEO), which will work with CDIC and Austrade to coordinate the government’s support for military exports. This will “significantly advance” efforts to create an export orientated arms industry, according to the Defence Export Strategy.
Several submissions to the export inquiry praised the British government’s support for arms exports. The Turnbull government’s changes bring Australia closer to that model.
The UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTIDSO) is a taxpayer-funded agency which, like the new Australian Defence Export Office, exists solely to help arms companies export their products. Austal described UKTIDSO as “a good model” for promoting exports, saying the organisation “uses all the assets at its disposal, such as ships, bases and senior officers as part of a coordinated export package. It’s in their culture!”
In addition, several submissions praised Britain’s use of uniformed armed forces personnel, defence attaches, government ministers and “eminent personalities”, such as Prince Andrew, to help sell British arms overseas.
Since 2007, the Australian DoD has been helping companies to promote overseas military sales through Team Defence Australia (TDA). TDA organises trade missions and arranges for delegations led by two- or three-star military officers to attend international arms fairs, such as Defence and Security Equipment International in London.
Export support will now be expanded through the creation of the ADEO, which will work with government ministers and senior defence department officials to “identify and prioritise high-level advocacy opportunities as part of the campaign approach for key markets and capabilities”, according to the Defence Export Strategy. The ADEO will organise the participation of ADF personnel in promotional activities and will work with other agencies to “develop a comprehensive defence export training package to assist Defence Attaches and other Australian government representatives overseas”.
Furthermore, a new Australian Defence Export Advocate will be appointed from outside the department of defence to “undertake senior-level advocacy and stakeholder engagement to support defence exports”.
Smith told GLW that the British model is “definitely not a model for Australia to emulate”. Britain “arms and supports some of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world such as those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia”.
CAAT is currently taking legal action against the British government’s decision to continue allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite evidence showing that those weapons are being used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
Adopting a partnership approach with the arms industry has been a central tenet of the federal government’s recent policy changes. This gives company representatives more opportunities to rub shoulders with DoD decision makers, and therefore more opportunities to influence policy.
CDIC is led by an advisory board, which includes the leaders of several arms companies. Additionally, the Defence Export Strategy announced that a new Australian Defence Export Forum (ADEF) will be established, consisting of representatives from federal and state governments and industry peak bodies. As such, it is similar to Britain’s Defence Suppliers Forum. The ADEF will “provide input to the development of export campaigns” and “coordinate export advocacy efforts across all levels of government”, according to the strategy.
The Australian Industry Group (AIG) Defence Council is a peak body representing the arms industry in Australia and led by a national executive comprising the CEOs of Australia’s leading arms companies. In a recent interview, the executive director of AIG’s Defence Council and head of Defence Industry Policy for AIG Kate Louis explained how the industry is able to influence policy through participation in working groups and forums with the department of defence.
Asked “how accommodating” government is towards industry, Louis said that the DoD “has been really open, really engaged”. She specifically highlighted exports as an area where industry is shaping policy, saying “the Defence Council has been really focused on assisting government and providing what we think is really trusted advice around what [the export strategy] might look like”.
Another conduit for arms company influence is the constant “revolving door” between the DoD and the arms industry. To cite just one relevant example, before taking up her roles at AIG, Louis was First Assistant Secretary for Defence Industry Policy at the DoD.
Smith said there is a conflict of interest when “arms companies enjoy regular meetings and social events with the same government ministers that are meant to be regulating their conduct”. Moreover, the government’s emphasis on arms exports increases the danger that foreign policy decisions will be influenced by the needs of the Australian arms industry.
CAAT has conducted extensive research into the ways the arms trade wields political influence in Britain, where Smith says it enjoys “a huge voice in the corridors of power”. Britain’s Foreign Secretary in the Tony Blair government, Robin Cooke, famously wrote in his memoirs that he “never knew No 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to BAE [Systems]".
Consequently, while the British government claims to “stand up for human rights” around the world, its priorities and policies are warped in favour of private commercial interests.
This as can be seen in the decision to continue to approve weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, which has allowed British arms companies to reap £6 billion (AUD$10.6 billion) from sales since the war in Yemen began in 2015. Meanwhile, an estimated 1300 children have been killed during the violence and 50,000 more were estimated to have died of starvation by the end of last year.
The Turnbull government says Australia’s defence export controls system will ensure that all arms sales “are consistent with Australia’s international obligations and commitments” and Australia will only sell to “like-minded countries that have a strong human rights record".
These promises lack credibility, however, as Australia is already exporting military products to states that are responsible for gross human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Moreover, as Smith says: “Once weapons have been sold we have no idea how they will be used or who they will be used against. The lifespan of a weapon is often longer than that of the governments they are sold to, or the political situations they are sold into.”
For arms companies, it does not pay for governments to be too concerned about human rights. BAE Systems Australia said as much in its submission to the export inquiry. In a section examining how South Korea has grown its arms exports, BAE wrote: “South Korean foreign policy and its willingness to not interfere or comment on other states’ potential use of their defence equipment is also an advantage — this is often an impediment in more liberal democracies”.
Smith said: “Arms companies don't care who their weapons go to. All they care about is securing sales. The weapons being sold today could be used in atrocities for years to come.”
Labor supports the Coalition’s approach to arms exports but there is growing opposition from within the community. The Greens, along with Amnesty International, Oxfam Australia, Save the Children, World Vision, and peace groups have warned that exporting more weapons will fuel violence and insecurity overseas.
There is now the potential to build a global movement against the arms trade. As Smith says: “The arms trade is global, so our resistance must be too. Activists need to work with campaigners all around the world to offer solidarity and share our actions and successes.”