Defence! A Light Opera in Three Inexpensive Acts

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On a late August evening in the concrete bunker of Sydney’s Masonic Building, 60 interested individuals gathered to present their views on Australia’s defence policy.

Former Labor MP Stephen Loosley, the chair of the hearing, announced that records from this official public consultation could contribute to a subsequent Defence White Paper on Australia’s defence priorities for the 21st century. He duly introduced his panel colleagues: Peter Collins, the former NSW Liberal leader, the retired Rear Admiral Simon Harrington, Professor Tanya Monro, and Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s ex chief of staff.

With the overture thus accomplished and the motley cast onstage, Loosley’s theatre of consultation took on the staccato rhythm of a musical. Whether the evening’s performance was a one-hit wonder or will influence the Defence Department’s subsequent grand opera remains to be seen.

The theatricals continued. A Department of Defence video loomed as the backdrop to a serious looking Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. To capture the dominant interpretations of defence, the Minister was accompanied by images of fighter planes taking off, guns firing, men in white marching, a naval officer peering into a submarine periscope, tanks rolling across a desert, more planes talking off and a helicopter hovering.

The mood changed with visual references to September 11, to the bombings in Madrid, Bali, London, and to the threats of climate change, infectious diseases and a multi-polar order. The invocation of this latter signalled both the increasing economic power of China and India and their potential to become military threats. Under their breath, a chorus of traditionalists hummed, "Large enemies are crucial for defence spending. Invisible terrorists may not be enough".

At this early stage of the evening, the panel and guests sang in harmony. It sounded like the hearing would endorse the Rudd Government’s promise of a 3 per cent increase in the funding base for defence to 2017-18. Not a wrong note was heard, not even the current extravagance of spending over $60 million a day on defence.

Aside from a contribution from Dr Hannah Middleton, an architect of the Anti-Bases campaign and a key critic of assumptions about the value of the Australia/US alliance, most of the first act of the hearing was concerned with traditional defence capabilities.

An ex-head of the navy worried in a tremulous baritone about recruitment: "Not much point in having expensive equipment if there are no skilled staff to use it". A man with a falsetto voice – who turned out be a merchant mariner – sang of the need to defend trade routes. His complex solo revolved around "better use of Australian brain power, the need to build a modern merchant navy and communication between civilians and the armed services".

The reference to civilians was echoed by members of the army reserve who complained that they had seldom been taken seriously: "Yet you need us, we have the skills and we are inexpensive". Peace analysts sensed an opportunity to advocate Australian support for the creation of a permanent UN Emergency Peace Service which would need expert civilians, nurses and doctors, mechanics and mediators, plumbers and "bricklayers without borders". Australia could mount defence by being a responsible international citizen: "Improve and support the UN!", chanted the impassioned chorus.

The mood of the evening took a dramatic turn when a gutsy Nick Deane from the Marrickville Peace Group gave a solo recitative. "How can we view the chair as impartial? How can the public have confidence in this hearing when the chair is on the board of Thales Australia, a weapons manufacturing company?"

The chairman blushed. Two colleagues rushed to his defence with reassurances. "Mr Loosley has chaired such meetings before!" "It happens in public life that committed citizens serve many interests and Mr Loosley is one of those invaluable public figures!"

Pleas for alternative ways to think about security steadily rose in crescendo. A representative of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) observed that the Department of Defence’s Discussion Paper made no reference to gender: "And yet," she sang, "women and children are the main casualties of war." Others joined the refrain and stressed the need to engage women in peacekeeping operations.

This was followed by a solo from a tenor in peace studies. He intoned what the general public interpret security to mean: "possession of a Medicare card and the entitlement to universal health insurance. Nothing to do with an expensive commitment to a military alliance with the US."

The official panel were listening intently. Former members of the armed forces performed. It was time for an aria exulting life without weapons of mass destruction. "The Rudd Government should be congratulated on reviving the Canberra Commission on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. That initiative should be a central feature of the country’s thinking about defence."

Hearing a compliment, the chair was disarmed. He was familiar with dialogue. "Would you say that we need a new ambassador for disarmament?" The reply: "To hold someone accountable for the promises of a Disarmament Commission, yes."

These new tunes moved towards powerful conclusions: women as peacekeepers; partnerships with neighbours; using space for peaceful purposes; increased overseas aid as a means of security.

Even the case for universal human rights breathed again. In a soft slow passage, a citizen who was familiar with the activities of the armed forces of the Philippines insisted that defence cooperation with other countries should demand respect for human rights. "Over the past two years there have been 900 extra judicial killings in the Philippines, almost all of them committed by the country’s armed forces, not by non state actors. Australia has colluded with an army which shows complete disdain for human rights. The rule of law is not enforced. Perpetrators of violence are not held to account. Australia is virtually endorsing acts of terrorism."

Leaders of Pax Christi and of the Anti-Bases movement struck the final chords. "Money spent on weapons should be spent on health care and education. The US is a threat, drags us into unnecessary wars and spends more on weapons than the rest of the world put together."

When the policy makers compose their final Defence White Paper, the light musical theme that non violent means are the effective way to peace, may not survive. But for one night at least, in Sydney’s Masonic bunker, the final chorus that dialogue is the best means of defence took centre stage.

New Matilda

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