Australia's bid to increase military exports faces growing community criticism

In January this year, Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced that Australia was aiming to become one of the world’s top ten ‘defence export’ countries over the next decade, moving up from its current position of 20th for the period of 2012-2016. This would put it just behind the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, Spain, Italy, Ukraine and Israel. A Defence Export Office would coordinate these efforts and allocated $3.8 billion government funding for promotion, along with the creation of an Australian Defence Export Advocate position. According to SIPRI, the industry only exported $127 million worth of armaments in 2016.

This move, announced during the summer holidays, presumably to dampen opposition, was justified by the Liberal-National Party Coalition’s mantra of “Jobs and Growth”. It was further justified by Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, on the grounds that “some of Australia’s most successful defence exports are defensive in nature and save lives.” (Letter to IPAN, 8 February 2018). The Minister also stressed that Australia would only sell weapons to “appropriate countries and appropriate places” despite his own recent visit to Saudi Arabia and other parties in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. He also spoke at the Arms Bazaar in Abu Dhabi in February 2017. When pressed for details of sales to the region, the Minister argued for commercial confidentiality in declining to provide such information.

His argument overlooked the use of the Swift, an Australian built catamaran damaged in a rocket attack in the Red Sea in October 2016, when under charter to the UAE which said it was being used for humanitarian assistance in the Yemen civil war. The Houthi rebels who attacked it called it an Emirati warship which had been previously used to ferry fighters from Eritrea.

Community groups opposing this move included OXFAM Australia, Save the Children and World Vision Australia’s chief advocate, Tim Costello, as well as church and peace groups around the country, but the opposition Labor Party remained quiet on the subject. This partly explains why the push to increase military exports has not been the subject of community debate, although the Australian Greens (with 12 out of 76 Senators in the Upper House) have strongly opposed it in Federal Parliament.

Peace groups who wrote to the Minister included the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network while religious groups included the Quakers and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the religious congregation founded by Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop.

The Leader of the Congregation pointed out that Australia’s capacity to deal in arms ethically was not evident in Australia’s history, citing “the provision of military hardware and training to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999 during the occupation of Timor Leste when up to 182,000 people died violently.”

Like other community groups, she called for the government to prioritise education, health and good governance initiatives rather than spending billions on exporting the means of destruction.

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Peter Jones

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