SUE WAREHAM. How independent is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

ASPI’s oft-repeated claim of independence – immunity from the influence of the corporations who help fund the organisation – does strike one as rather naive for experts who might otherwise be seen as “hard-headed realists” in a tough world. Corporations are, after all, accountable to their shareholders to whom they must demonstrate that funds are spent in pursuit of profits. How then, could these corporations justify granting sponsorships to an organisation in which they have zero influence? 

A Fairfax article on 4 March, “The RAAF revolution: drones”, by David Wroe, drew attention to a number of technologies that are envisaged as playing an important role in a future war with China. Among the manufacturers of these technologies and their associated weapons systems are Northrop-Grumman and its Triton drones, Lockheed Martin and its JSF F-35, and Boeing and its radar-jamming Growler fighter. Malcolm Davis, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) was quoted several times, outlining Australia’s air combat capabilities.

However nowhere did the article mention that ASPI is part funded by the very companies whose products Davis enthused about. To most reasonable readers this information would be relevant in assessing ASPI’s remarks, just as, say, comments on energy policy from a body that receives funding from the fossil fuel lobby might be interpreted differently from those of a body that receives no industry funding. Disclosure of conflicts of interest is regarded as important for good reason.

ASPI’s annual report for 2015 – 2016 states that a significant proportion of their funding comes from the Department of Defence. This funding is the “key enabler” of ASPI operations, but as a percentage of the ASPI budget it has diminished from 97% in the early 2000’s to 50% now. Therefore ASPI seeks commitment from “private sector enterprises that share our objectives for national security and the public debate, while unambiguously maintaining our independence in research, publications, advice and comment”.

Its corporate sponsors for 2015 – 2016 included Austal Ltd, BAE Systems Australia, Boeing Defence Australia, Broadspectrum, Elbit Systems of Australia, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin Australia, Raytheon, Thales Australia and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. That’s quite a list of companies that have a strong interest in the sale of weaponry.

ASPI’s oft-repeated claim of independence – immunity from the influence of the corporations who help fund the organisation – does strike one as rather naive for experts who might otherwise be seen as “hard-headed realists” in a tough world. Corporations are, after all, accountable to their shareholders to whom they must demonstrate that funds are spent in pursuit of profits. How then, could these corporations justify granting sponsorships to an organisation in which they have zero influence?

I am reminded of medical colleagues who try valiantly to stand by their assertion that gifts from drug reps, all touting their own cures and brand names, have no influence on the doctors’ prescribing habits. Fortunately the practice of doctors receiving largesse from the pharmaceutical industry is coming under scrutiny. Not so the influence of the weapons industry on those whom they regard as opinion makers. As with my medical colleagues, this has nothing to do with the calibre, skills and expertise of the individual practitioners, be they GPs, medical specialists or defence experts.   It’s simply a matter of the “no free lunch” principle and hidden pressures in the form of maintaining goodwill and friendships.

There is a further class of weapons, not the subject of the recent Fairfax article but the subject of recent high level talks at the UN, which must be included in any discussion of ASPI funding: nuclear weapons. On 27 March, negotiations began in New York on a treaty to prohibit these most destructive of all weapons. The Australian government boycotted the talks. However we cannot forever escape the implications of the ban treaty that’s coming. When it is concluded, which will almost certainly be this year, will ASPI still accept funding from the makers of illegal, illegitimate weapons of mass destruction?

On other security issues such as a possible war with China, genuine debate – involving the Australian community – on how such a monumentally disastrous outcome can be avoided, is desperately needed. Do the interests of the arms industry, which are best served by a heavily militarised, weaponised and fearful Australia, and the interests of the Australian people coincide, or are they wildly divergent, or somewhere in between? Having financial backers from one side of that debate is an impediment to addressing these critical questions.

At the very least, conflicts of interest should be declared when and where they apply. In the Fairfax example cited above, while the author’s trip to the US courtesy of Northop-Grumman was declared, ASPI’s interests were not.

Dr Sue Wareham, Vice-President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)  

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2 Responses to SUE WAREHAM. How independent is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

  1. Dr Wareham shines a light on who benefits from our increasing interoperability with the US military. MAPW is a valued member of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

  2. Jaquix says:

    Good to see the conflict of interested, or pissible/perceived COI, brought to light by the author.

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