The Defence State


You don’t hear the term ‘military-industrial complex’ much these days. Once favoured by pacifists and unreconstructed Lefties, it’s rather gone out of fashion, like Doc Martins boots and pacifist radicalism in general.

The term is often attributed to former US President Dwight D Eisenhower, who used it in a speech in January 1961. (In fact it was coined much earlier, by the British pacifist group the Union of Democratic Control, in their tragically prescient manifesto published in August 1914.)

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," Eisenhower argued in ‘61, often interpreted as expressing remorse for the Strangelovian growth in nuclear weaponry under his watch. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."

Half a century later, Eisenhower’s speech still sounds a warning bell for Australia.

One of the least discussed aspects of the Howard Government was its massive investment in new military hardware. Under Howard, and particularly his final Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, Australia embarked on its largest ever peace-time arms race, committing ourselves to increasing defence spending by 3 per cent a year in real terms for the next decade. We’re spending big: buying or building new tanks, ships, jets, cargo planes, helicopters, battle helmets, unmanned drones and giant landing ships.

Most defence analysts focus on the threat this spending spree poses to Australia’s budgetary and fiscal position. But a recent decision in South Australia shows how fragile our fundamental political rights can be when faced with pressure from powerful defence corporations.

The South Australian Equal Opportunity Tribunal this week granted an exemption to BAE Systems Australia from South Australian racial discrimination laws to enable the company to discriminate against nationals from certain countries when considering who should work on projects involving sensitive defence material from the United States.


Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

BAE Systems does an awful lot of work with the US military, including the sort of sensitive military technology-based work which requires security clearance. Unfortunately, US security clearance is based on some absurdly heavy-handed laws preventing access to citizens from so-called "proscribed nations" like China, Iran and Vietnam. It’s known as the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

Australia has encountered issues with ITAR before. In 2006, the Australian Financial Review’s defence correspondent, the cluey Geoffrey Barker, reported that one of the reasons Brendan Nelson chose to buy a new military helicopter, the MRH-90, from the Europeans was that "the European bid offered the ADF better access to crucial computer source codes than the Sikorsky (US) bid." Kim Beazley also noted, in his farewell speech to Parliamentary last year, that when Australia first bought our F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets from the Americans in the 1980s, the US refused to give us crucial radar codes.

Yet the same regulations that the US has used to deny Australia access to military technology are now apparently reason enough to exempt large defence contractors from racial discrimination laws.

South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner Linda Matthews opposed the decision, arguing that "commercial considerations should not override fundamental human rights." But South Australian Deputy Premier Kevin Foley wrote to the Tribunal in support of BAE Systems.

Defence is big business in South Australia. Under the 2007 South Australian Strategic Plan, Premier Mike Rann wants South Australia to double the defence industry’s contribution to the State economy – to 28,000 jobs and $2 billion – by 2013.

BAE Systems is clearly going to be a favoured player in the Defence State. The global aerospace and arms giant has just taken over Australian defence firm Tenix, our largest domestic ADF contractor, in a $775 million purchase which will make BAE the largest single contractor to the Australian military. The deal also gives BAE a play in the $8 billion ship-building joint venture with Spanish firm Navantia to build the Royal Australian Navy’s big new Air Warfare Destroyers.

Rann is right behind the take-over, telling the ABC on Friday that the decision "further consolidates us as the defence capital of Australia. What we are seeing around the country is really a fundamental realignment of the defence industry and we are becoming the hub."

As for the junking of South Australia’s racial discrimination laws? South Australian Democrats leader Sandra Kanck is about the only politician who has had anything critical to say on the matter. She raised the possibility that the decision could spark copycat applications for exemptions from other defence contractors looking to sell to the US. "Companies exporting arms to Israel could seek the right to discriminate against Muslims and Palestinians," said Kanck, "while Arab countries could object to Israelis building weapons for them in South Australia."

It seems the weight of what Eisenhower called the "combinations" are already beginning to impinge upon our democratic and political processes.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.