ALISON BROINOWSKI. Is militarism in Australia’s DNA?

Feb 6, 2018

Australians who don’t live in other countries don’t realise how our self-image differs from the perception, particularly in Asia, that we were militarists from the start. Australia’s tendency to resort to force is hard-wired, hard to eliminate, and goes back a long way. 

Australia was born fighting (as I think I have said elsewhere). Founded by British military officers, the colonies soon began the frontier wars. The last of many massacres of Aborigines, at Coniston, was recorded in 1927. The colonies offered troops for Britain’s wars against Russians in Crimea, mutineers in India, Arabs in Sudan, Zulus and Boers in South Africa, Boxers in China, and Maoris in New Zealand. From Federation on, although some protested, Australia sent troops to war eleven times. When Britain in 1931 offered its senior dominions the option, under the Statute of Westminster, to take over control of their own external affairs and defence, Australia declined. Always, the enemy was defined by Britain or the United States, our forces were under their command, and only in one war (in the Pacific) was Australia directly threatened.

On a few occasions Australia’s leaders resisted sending troops to American wars, but from Korea onwards they transferred to the United States the mindless automaticity that applied to fighting wars for Britain. We asked to take part in the Vietnam war, volunteered for Gulf War I and Afghanistan, begged to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and pleaded to be invited back in 2014. In Syria, we offered six RAAF planes to join illegal US operations in 2015. Since Vietnam, all our wars have been undeclared, to avoid international legal challenges, and no independent inquiry has been held into their causes or consequences. Despite not having won a war with the US since 1945, Australia’s bipartisan faith in the ANZUS alliance has become almost sacrosanct.

We have been continuously at war since 2001, when John Howard unilaterally extended the scope of ANZUS to cover any threat in the world. In that time, a whole generation of Australians has grown up. In their lifetime, Australia has become much more militaristic, and more fearful, than we were in 1901. Since 2003, public protest against the Middle East wars has died of a broken heart; no leader has endorsed Malcolm Fraser’s call for ‘strategic independence’ (Dangerous Allies, 2014); public debate has been impoverished by our withering, polarised mainstream media; defence, national security, and now defence exports are the growth areas that magnetise money, talent, and approbation in government, academia, industry, and advertising. Peace-making and diplomacy do not.

Accurate information about our wars is hard to get from the authorities which demand ‘full spectrum dominance’ of our private data. National security agencies, John Menadue argues, play a circular con-trick on us by keeping us in the dark, making us less free, less safe, more fearful, and more reliant on armed force (Pearls and Irritations, 6 September 2016). Powerful elites frighten people into accepting heavily armed police, impunity for ASIO agents, and even imprisonment of citizens for knowing something the elites don’t want them to. In April 2016, Major-General Jeff Sengelman proudly told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ‘I have forces deployed in many locations as we speak. Some you know about. Many you do not.’  Always, the threat of terrorism to our freedom of expression and access to information is used to justify more and more stringent laws that restrict us. Australian fascism is not far off, as the recent eruption of extreme right groups suggests. Or was it in our DNA from day one?

In the 1920s-30s, Italian admirers of Mussolini set up a Fascio in Adelaide and another in Port Pirie. Eric Campbell founded the New Guard in Sydney, one of whose members was the sword-wielding Captain de Groot. In 1951 a ‘Call to the People of Australia’ was put out by heads of churches and Chief Justices, who warned ‘Australia is in danger, abroad and at home.’ It was organised by Sir Edmund Herring, who had been a Commander of the New Guard. Empowered by the internet, and following the example of far-right Americans, inheritors of these proto-fascist tendencies include members of the Australian Defence League, Australia First, the Dingoes, One Australia, Party for Freedom, Q Society, Rise Up Australia, Reclaim Australia, True Blue Crew, Unite Australia, and the neo-Nazi Wotansvolk (see John Safran, Depends what you mean by Extremist, Hamish Hamilton, 2017). ‘Third world migrants’ and Asian Australians, Tony Pettit of Australia First said in 2016, ‘probably wouldn’t make good soldiers,’ and they had no concern for the rule of law. ( We keep hearing about the rule of law and the ‘international rules-based order’ from Ministers who want others to obey it but ignore it when it suits them.

A glimmer of hope shines from the still unexplained withdrawal of RAAF bombers from Syria in December, and from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s expressed reservations about Australia demonising Iran and signing up for Trump’s East Asia strategy (whatever that is). But hip separation surgery is essential if we are to break the pattern of Australia’s disastrous US wars and eliminate militarism from our national psyche.


Dr Alison Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat, a Fellow of AIIA, and Vice-President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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