Free RATs not expensive tanks!

January 19, 2022
M1 tank
The $3.5 billion that will be spent on Abrams tanks is enough to buy 230 million rapid antigen tests. Photo: US Army.

Not even a national health crisis stops the Scott Morrison government’s push to grow the military industrial complex.

The prime minister’s refusal to provide free rapid antigen tests (RATs) was shortly followed by his announcement that he was spending $3.5 billion on 75 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, 29 Assault Breacher Vehicles, 17 Joint Assault Bridge vehicles, six Hercules Combat Recovery Vehicles and 122 gas turbine engines. It comes on the heels of the AUKUS security pact.

This grotesque use of precious public funds for offensive military equipment from the United States State Department during the peak of the Omicron wave tells us something about the government’s priorities: its military alliance with the US — and its contracts with weapons manufacturers — is more important than our health.

According to the January 10 Sydney Morning Herald, Australia has not deployed a tank in combat since the Vietnam War. Even pro-war army spokespeople have queried the usefulness of tanks and argued the government should focus on potential regional maritime and air conflicts.

So, why tanks?

It seems that defence minister Peter Dutton wants to continually expand Australia’s military contracts with General Dynamics and Boeing as part of his defence upgrade and anti-China agenda.

Last year, following the AUKUS deal, Dutton announced military spending would rise to $50 billion a year.

US-based General Dynamics (owned by Lockheed Martin) is contracted to manufacture the Abrams tanks. It will also manufacture parts for Australia’s new nuclear submarines under the AUKUS deal.

As Australia is committed to spending an additional $42 billion on armoured vehicles over the next few years, General Dynamics is set to make huge profits.

Meanwhile, as the Omicron virus spreads and PCR tests are restricted, the public cannot access RATs — free or otherwise — because the government “just can’t” spend any more money on the pandemic. That was Morrison’s line on Sunrise on January 3.

“We just can’t go round and make everything free … we’ve had JobKeeper, we've had business supports, we’ve had the COVID disaster payments. We’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars getting Australia through this crisis. But we’re now in a stage of the pandemic, where you can’t just make everything free because when someone tells you they want to make something free, someone’s always going to pay for it and it’s going to be you.”

What Morrison didn’t tell Sunrise host Edwina Bartholomew is that the government is more than happy to spend $3.5 billion on tanks.

Michael West Media has calculated that could buy 230 million RATs.

We shouldn’t forget either that Morrison and other ministers get their RATs for free. We are paying through the nose. Partly because of short supply and profiteering, price gouging is rampant and is now subject to investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Doctors, unions and businesses are demanding RATs be made free for all. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, which pushed for the government to provide free RATS last October, said even in the United States, with its broken health system, half a billion free RATs are being made available. The British government is mailing to people’s homes and workplaces.

The Australian Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia also slammed the government, saying on January 5 that free RATs are an “essential tool for communicable disease control”.  

“The people most at risk from the pandemic are often least able to afford RATs … we didn’t let the market decide the price for COVID-19 vaccines and we must not let it determine RAT price," it said.

Public pressure has forced the government to concede it will subsidise RATs for concession, seniors, health care, low income and Veterans Affairs card holders. However, they can only get 10 RATs over a three month period.

The RATs versus tanks spending debacle shows who Morrison really serves. He and his government need to go. More than that, we need to build the movements for health care and workplace rights. 

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