The killing business: Australia and the arms trade

On the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day this November, Adelaide was due to play host to the largest military corporations in the world, who would be displaying the most sophisticated weapons that have ever been created. The planned fair was cancelled on September 7 by the South Australian government on grounds of supposed "violent protests" being planned.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann had called this a fantastic business and investment opportunity. We call it an obscenity.

The Asia Pacific Defence and Security Exhibition (APDSE) was being billed as an opportunity for Australia to take advantage of the "size and significant growth of the Asia Pacific defence and security market". Citing regional issues — including North Korean instability, regional arms races, security implications of climate change, illegal immigration to Australia and the Australian government's commitment to increase defence spending over the next five years — APDSE positioned itself as the place for the international weapons community to meet and network on how to best take advantage of this perceived trend to instability in the region.

The governments of Israel, the United States, France, Italy, Britain, Germany and South Africa, along with companies such as Boeing, Thales and BAe, had already booked major exhibition space at APDSE. This was not to make sales to the Australian military but to network with the military representatives who would have visited Adelaide for the show.

APDSE was not about making immediate sales. While some small Australian manufacturers would have be hoping to attract the attention of purchasers and network with large corporations in the hope of picking up some parts contracts, the major corporations would have their equipment on display mainly for the "ooh aah" factor. No one really expected that a general from somewhere in Asia was going to walk up to a stall and buy a few intercontinental ballistic missiles on the spot.

What they did expect was that the hospitality shown to military decision makers would result in favourable arrangements being made down the track.

Military junket

APDSE was little more than a junket for the military corporate types of the Asia Pacific region and an opportunity for them to talk shop, meet the representatives of the big players and exchange the gossip on the industry, just like any other trade fair in any other industry.

The last time an arms fair the size of the APDSE was held in Australia was in 1989 and 1991, when the ALP government, with Kim Beazley as defence minister, set out to openly increase Australia's military role.

The resulting public outcry was so strong at these events, and the blockades at the gates so effective, that AIDEX '93 was banned by the ACT government. After looking around for another home, the organisers, Desiko, quietly cancelled their 1993 event.

Protests against arms fairs are regular occurrences in many countries. In Britain, the largest arms fair in the world, DESi, attracted so much opposition that the company organising it, Reed Elsevier, sold off its arms fair department last year.

While this was great news for the international peace movement, it was a two-edged sword for Australia: Alex Nicholl, who was employed by Reed to organise DESi, was suddenly out of work and decided to try his luck in the colonies. What he found here was a military corporate sector desperate to improve its standing in the military community.

The links between the military and corporate worlds have been well-documented, most notably by supporters of the free market. In 1999 New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman wrote: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

This is not only the case for US and global capital, but for Australian capital as well. Australia has a strange place in the international arms trade. With a small population and a diminishing manufacturing sector, exports of Australian-made equipment are quite minor in world terms; but this is not Australia's only role. Haliburton, Raytheon, BAe and Boeing, among others, maintain a major presence in Australia — out of proportion to the amount of business Australian government and industry generates.

Australia's position as a Western outpost on the doorstep of Asia makes it an attractive place for US and European arms companies to locate their regional offices and, while the actual weapons themselves may never pass through Australia, in the globalised marketplace, a lot of the lobbying, administration and financial arrangements for international trafficking does.

In many ways this is analogous to Australia's military role: overseas deployment of troops being largely limited by its small population, Australia plays a major role in hosting military command, control, communications and intelligence bases such as Pine Gap and provides unparalleled access to training facilities for US allies through exercises such as Talisman Sabre in Queensland.

Australia's major military role in both deployment and industry is as a service provider.

Hosting APDSE was to be an important part of Australia's role of providing services to the military industrial complex. It would have provided the space, time and the prestige for them to undertake their business with impunity.

In return, Australia's service to the military industrial complex ensures continued access to resources and markets. In straight economic terms, this is a good return for the $22 billion defence budget; or at least it's a good deal for the corporations who benefit, if not for the Australian people who are working longer hours for less wages in real terms with fewer government services.

In a time of financial, social and ecological crises, Australia is servicing the military industrial complex in return for access to resources and market opportunities. Today this framework is known as market-driven social democracy; seventy years ago it was called fascism.

Peace groups, churches, political organisations and environmental groups had planned a major protest at APDSE. Planned protests included a peace festival on November 9, a picket and vigil for the duration of APDSE, from November 11-13, and a blockade of the setting up of the exhibition up from November 8-11.

[Jacob Grech is a member of Renegade Activists, the organising body for the AIDEX '89 and '91 protests, which had regrouped to protest APDSE.]