Richard Marles: More money for war

April 18, 2024
Richard Marles and submarine
Marles claimed Australia needs to spend billions more on defence to 'to protect our interests in the Pacific'. Image: Green Left

Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister and defence minister, used a media conference to commit hundreds of billions in public funding over the next decade to the manufacture of lethal offensive weapons.

“National interest” was Marles’ main political justification for Labor to lift its spending on defence from just under 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.4% by 2033–34.

Australia’s spending on defence has only ever reached more than 2.4% of GDP during the Korean War, when it hit 2.5%.

Marles was enthusiastic about the “largest defence spending since WWII”, telling the National Press Club on April 17 that “Labor’s historical mission” is about building “an integrated defence force capacity”.

He committed Labor to spending more than $330 billion on the innocuous sounding “Integrated Investment Program” in the next decade.

This plan means Australia will lean more heavily into its AUKUS partners — Britain and the United States — to provide training to a more “integrated” and “focused” military force.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF), Marles said, “needs a much greater capacity to project to defend Australia’s interests”. He announced that the ADF would look to “non-citizens” to boost numbers, but was vague on the details apart from saying he would be “looking to AUKUS partners or 5 Eyes partners” and mentioning New Zealand “is an obvious partner” (even though it is not part of AUKUS).

While conceding “an invasion of Australia is unlikely”, Marles said Australia faced “challenging strategic circumstances”.

A focus on long-range missiles and targeting systems is because “optimistic assumptions since the end of the Cold War are long gone” and the “strategic environment has deteriorated”, Marles said.

“This is a significant lift,” he said, berating former Coalition governments for failing to keep up.

As an island nation “we need to protect our interests in the Pacific”, Marles said. “Entrenched and competing competition” between China and the US, “accompanied by unprecedented conventional and non-conventional build-up of militaries” in the region means Australia has to have an “impactful projection” to “help the region”.

He blamed China for “competition for security partnerships”, adding, Australia “needs to work with partners to deter broader conflict in the region that would be disastrous”.

The “Pacific is vital to Australia’s security and prosperity”, he said, and Labor “will continue to invest in security relationships within the Pacific family”.

Journalist Nic Maclellan, a long-time critic of Australia’s colonialist approach to the Pacific nations, said on X that successive governments had “used a lot of rhetoric” about the “regional family”, while riding roughshod over “Pacific-led approaches”.

“The 2018 Boe Declaration, signed by Australia, says that climate change is the ‘greatest single threat’ to the security of Pacific peoples. Yet in this [defence] strategy, climate is lumped in with ‘Compounding security risks’ like grey-zone activities, nukes or North Korean missiles.”

Another tension, Maclellan said, is that the Pacific Island Forum has ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whereas Marles has committed to US “nuclear deterrence”.

“Will similar billions flow into the greatest single security threat identified by island states — climate change?” Maclellan asked. “Don’t hold your breath!”

Marles’ second “justification” for the need to increase military spending, was Labor’s support for “national security and prosperity based on global rules-based order”. He said this without a hint of irony.

No journalist in the room challenged Marles on this, including Australian complicity in Israel’s genocide in Gaza via the manufacture of weapons’ components for F35s and Pine Gap signals intelligence being sent to the Israeli Defense Forces.

Neither was any challenge raised as to why billions are being allocated to weapons manufacturing when the cost-of-living and housing crises are biting deep and sustainable, benign jobs could be created with a planned transition to clean energy.

The only challenge to Marles in the room came from the right: Sky News and The Australian raised mild criticisms over delays in the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine program and the “ADF culture” being a discouragement.

Marles responded by castigating the Coalition for “a lost decade”, adding that AUKUS under Labor “has gone from a concept to a reality”.

Marles said Australia’s nuclear submarine capability by the early 2030s, will “close the credibility gap”.

Australia would have “high tech facilities” to build the SSN-AUKUS submarines in Osbone Naval Shipyard Area in South Australia, with $2 billion invested in South Australian infrastructure in the next few years.

An $8 billion expansion of HMAS Stirling in West Australia will allow for more frequent visits by British and US nuclear-powered submarines from 2027, Marles said.

From the early 2030s HMAS Stirling will house Australia’s first sovereign SSN capability – the US Virginia class submarines.

Marles’ announcement puts the priorities of the Labor government on full display. 

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