The Prime Minister’s January 29 announcement that Australia is destined to become a bigger arms dealer has provoked widespread dissent from aid organisations and anti-war networks.
The Defence Export Strategy aims to lift Australia to become one of the top 10 defence industry exporting countries within a decade. Save the Children, World Vision, the Australian Council for International Development and the Greens have all condemned the move to export death and profit from bloodshed.
In this increasingly dystopian world, the route to creating jobs and boosting manufacturing with the latest technology has to come from a $3.8 billion boost to the production of small arms weapons to be exported to countries that are waging wars without end.
Perhaps because Australia is not facing any direct threat, the defence industry minister Christopher Pyne and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are spruiking the push to sell more weapons as being good for jobs and the manufacturing industry. They know that many Australians are still anti-war.
The new Defence Export Strategy is “an ambitious, positive plan to boost Australian industry, increase investment and create more jobs for Australian businesses,” Pyne enthused.
It forms part of Turnbull’s 2017–18 budget allocation — a whopping $200 billion over the next decade — to the Australian Defence Force.
“Given the size of our defence budget, we should be a lot higher up the scale,” Turnbull said referring to Australia’s ranking in the international weapon’s market.
Australia is a small player: the 2017 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report ranks Australia 20th in arms exports with a 0.3% share of the global market.
It said: “Australia’s imports are aimed at giving the country capabilities to operate further from its shores than before and are partly to counter a perceived growing threat from China”, underscoring the offensive, rather than defensive, posture this spending represents.
While the government claims that the sale of arms would only be to “like-minded countries that have a strong human rights record”, trade minister Steve Ciobo contradicted that by saying the priority markets included US, Canada, Britain and the Middle East.
The US does not have any such record. Taking into account its covert military operations and its military interventions in internal country conflicts, the US has a military presence in much of the world today.
Neither does Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Pyne has been pursing weapons’ contracts with Saudi Arabia, the West’s favourite dictatorship. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia, with the support of the US (and Australia), has been waging a war on its impoverished neighbour Yemen, including with the banned weapon white phosphorous.
In 2016, the Greens’ then foreign affairs spokesperson Scott Ludlam successfully persuaded the Senate to back a motion that Pyne disclose all the government’s dealings with Saudi regime and the Greens have since repeated the call to ban weapons’ sales to that country.
The release of such information under FOI has been prevented with the excuse that it would “reveal sensitive approaches relating to Defence activities, in particular those related to relationships with foreign governments and businesses”.
This one example shows just how unregulated war profiteering is and, given the renewed push to sell arms, this will only become more difficult to rein in.
Australia may well be a signatory to the 2014 International Arms Trade Treaty, but this non-binding multi-lateral agreement only establishes a set of rules legalising the death trade between the big players, and outlawing it among the smaller ones.
Investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein tried, but failed, to find out exactly what Australia is selling and to which country. But we know enough to know Australia is selling to countries involved in human rights abuses.
This is why Labor’s response to the government’s plan is particularly galling. The so-called left-wing MP Anthony Albanese told ABC Radio on January 29 that he was “very supportive of any proposal that creates jobs, that’s the starting point”.
Any proposal that creates jobs?
What about reviving manufacturing jobs by investing in benign renewable energy? Or extending public transport for which some arms manufacturers — such as the giant weapons’ manufacturer Thales — are also renowned?
The Defence Ministry’s argument that because this country faces no immediate threat it should therefore invest in weapons for export must be countered. While ships, armoured vehicles and aircraft are Australia’s biggest export, the government is encouraging small businesses to grab a share of the billions on offer to produce component parts including for the F-35 Joint Strike fighter, radar navigation systems and munitions systems. It is also encouraging research facilities at universities, such as Lockheed Martin’s Science, Technology, Engineering Leadership & Research Laboratory set up in 2016 at the University of Melbourne.
Australia’s defence industry contracts are currently worth around $200 billion, up from $600 million in 2003–04.
More jobs cannot come at the cost of people’s lives, which is what will happen if Australia enhances its “defence” exports.
Even relatively pro-government organisations such as Save the Children recognise this. Save the Children’s Australian CEO Paul Ronalds said while the charity was concerned about “terrorism”, as an organisation “working on the front-lines in conflict zones, we also know that an increase in the supply of arms and munitions is not the answer”.
The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network’s Stephen Darley condemned the move to become a major arms exporter. “What is needed is an independent voice seeking diplomatic and peaceful resolution of conflicts, not a country boosting the arms race and the profits of arms manufacturers, who rely on the existence of conflicts.
“It is not strong defence exports that will safeguard Australia against conflict, but strong and respectful relationships between Australia and countries in and outside our region.”
One of the “key initiatives” of the new Defence Export Strategy is “expanded trade shows”. This gives the anti-war and peace networks an opportunity to protest at the annual benign-sounding Avalon Air Show in Geelong and similar. We will need to revive the movement that made its presence felt at the 1991 Australian International Defence Exhibition if we are to stop the bipartisan push to profit from death.
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