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Reflections on AUSMIN

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 20 Nov 2012

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (22:21): That is such an interesting speech to follow that I would like to add my remarks to some of those of Senator McKenzie as the beneficiary also of the trip that directly preceded hers into the same theatre of war. I returned with a very similar respect for the men and women we have sent into that war zone and a very different understanding of the responsibility placed on us for sending them there and to other conflict zones in the first place.

So I rise, perhaps quite appropriately, to make some remarks about the AUSMIN talks that recently took place in my hometown of Perth, which heard the thump of helicopters overhead as US Secretaries of State and Defense touched down. As senators know, one year ago during the visit of President Obama to this building, a very significant announcement was made for the basing of the United States troops on Australian soil for the first time since the Second World War.

This has major ramifications for Australia and for our role in the region. The consent of the Australian public and our parliament was not sought and nor was it given. At AUSMIN, without a whisper of consultation or consent, these arrangements were 'consolidated'. The communique describes it as 'US rebalance towards the region'. Other commentators are instead using the words 'containment' and 'arms race'.

There are plenty of issues that I would strongly welcome the government Australia and the government of the USA discussing, and a number of them were canvassed at the AUSMIN talks. I am certainly pleased that issues of nuclear proliferation and improving the human rights situation in Burma-two easy examples-were discussed and made their way into the communique. Australia and the United States do have work to do together in this region and globally to advance nuclear weapons disarmament, starting with getting nuclear weapons out of our security policy and encouraging the United States to uphold its international legal obligations, along with those of course of other nuclear weapons states around the world.

The communique noted that we have work to do together to complete the Arms Trade Treaty at the conference in March 2013 and in promoting the leadership of women in political, economic and social development. But the Australian people, in my view, deserve more information than we have been getting about the security implications of the US-Australia talks. What exactly was it that got consolidated this month at AUSMIN?

What we learned on the eve of the AUSMIN talks is that a document I have asked about at Senate Estimates and in Senate question time does in fact exist. This document outlines the roles and rights and responsibilities of the United States forces to be stationed in Australia, and it is not being made public, according to the government, and will not be made public. We know this thanks to a freedom of information request made by Fairfax journalist Dylan Welch, a request that was of course denied. That means that everything we know about the formal legal mechanics of the most significant deployment of foreign troops and equipment on Australian soil since the Second World War is instead contained in the Status of Forces Agreement signed with the US government in May 1963. I have asked a number of times in Defence estimates whether this document would be reviewed or amended, figuring that basing US Air Force fighters and bombers at Tindal, a Marine Corps contingent at Robertson, increased access to ports and air weapons ranges all over the country would surely require amendments to a document that went to press in the middle of the Cold War effectively to cover intelligence facilities only. With a straight face I was told the document would not be reviewed, and now we know why-an entirely new document has been drafted. At least the ambiguities in the Status of Forces Agreement are right out in the open; this current 2012 legal agreement is secret. The government has no intention of releasing it, apparently by request of the United States. My observation on this, apart from the evident insult to Australian sovereignty that our government is uncritically accommodating, is that this is the age of the leak.

Rumour and speculation flourish in a vacuum, and a vacuum of course is what has been created. I do suspect that one day that document will make its way into the public domain-and as far as I am concerned, the sooner the better. In the meantime, in this climate of nondisclosure it is understandable for people in Perth and elsewhere around the country to want to know what 'greater access to our facilities' means when it comes to the Stirling Naval Base. Assurances of this being a third-tier consideration and downplayed by the defence minister as requiring 'substantial further study and additional decisions by both capitals'-that is defence minister Smith-is exactly the kind of language that people in Darwin were hearing in the run-up to President Obama's warning to China announced in our parliament last November.

In Western Australia I am fortunate enough to remember at least some recent history. Back in April and May of 2002, the then Labor Minister for State Development, Clive Brown, travelled to the United States on a fact-finding mission. The facts that he was seeking were: what would it take to attract the US Navy to Western Australia? He was told at the time by an admiral to spruik access to the Lancelin Defence Training Area for bombing, access to Stirling Naval Base, our secure location, our cost competitiveness and compatibility of language, and all that sort of thing. Then Parliamentary Secretary Mark McGowan, who is now the state Leader of the Opposition, followed it up that July with a delegation of defence contractors-not diplomats or foreign policy specialists, but defence contractors-and hit the jackpot with the Sea Swap trial, or so they thought at the time.

As long ago as 2002, the US government was contemplating the Asia-Pacific pivot that we are hearing so much about, using language very familiar today. Already emphasis was turning away from the sprawling network of bases in Western Europe and East Asia to a network of small bases, transit points or lily pads dispersed around the region, places where you would have in advance legal rights of access, compatible fuel, water and power supplies and adequate force protection.

The Sea Swap trial was claimed to be a great success, but it was overshadowed by a sudden change in tempo. Carrier battle groups began cycling through Gage Roads, US F18s pounded the Lancelin Defence Training Area with high explosives and smoke bombs, and we were abruptly reminded just how our remote port city on the rim of the Indian Ocean is connected to the rest of the world. You see, at exactly that time the United States was preparing to launch the invasion of Iraq.

So in Western Australia I am not just worried about the local impacts of basing United States military forces and I hope that will not be construed as being anti-American-though I suspect it will. I do have concerns about the social impacts of service personnel, whether they be from the United States or anywhere else in the world, based in my home port. I do have concerns about the environmental impacts of the toxins, the ordnance, the chemicals, the fuels and the propellants involved in blasting areas like the Lancelin Defence Training Area, all those sorts of things that are contingent on the normal operations of military bases all around the world. I and many people like me are not anti-American. If you consult around the location of a shopping centre or the creation of a new park or the layout of the suburb or the location of the school, perhaps it would be useful to also consult before you launch the most significant military deployment of foreign troops and equipment into Australia since the 1940s. But this is all happening without a whisper of consultation with the Australian people. I suspect that in this room the Australian Greens are the only ones who will formally go on the record and say that we find it somewhat offensive. That is not anti-American. I would be very concerned if the Chinese military had been invited to station outposts in Australia, or the New Zealand Defence Force for that matter. If you were confident that it would be supported-and by many people it would be-you would bring the Australian people into your confidence. But of course that is not what is happening.

We need to go into this with our eyes open, as we should have done in the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and learn that these kinds of deployments entangle us in foreign policy decisions that we may not support, that we have not supported in the past and that we may not support in the future. So I was proud to be with those calling for peace at vigils and events in Perth last week.

I am also proud to be associated with the new Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, IPAN, an Australia-wide organisation made up of non-government organisations, churches, unions and community groups opposed to foreign military bases that rather seek to promote democratic, transparent and participatory decision making on Australia's peace and security options.

I will conclude my remarks with recognition of my friend and mentor former Senator Jo Vallentine. She was a senator in this place during the Cold War. She was very often alone in this place, challenging the logic, the expense and the pollution of what passed for real politics and security back then. For so doing, she was often belittled by people who were never her intellectual or moral equals. Jo spoke for me and many, many other people when she said last week: 'It is not in my name that you make these plans and promises in support of future wars and it is not in my name that you offer Australian facilities to the deadliest war machine on the planet.'


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