It’s time to strip ‘national security’ of its sacred cow status. Part 2

On closer inspection, the immense financial, institutional, and rhetorical investment in this elaborate security edifice rests on questionable assumptions. The costs may far outweigh any likely benefits.

Part 1 described Australia’s greatly expanded security apparatus and the concerted efforts to create a narrative which uses Australia’s past sacrifices in war to validate this trend.

The planned growth of ADF capabilities is locking Australia more and more firmly into America’s military-industrial complex. This is the inevitable result of our current military procurement plans, strategic doctrine, training practices, combined operations and active support for US military bases and communications and surveillance systems.

Wittingly or otherwise we are choosing a path whereby America’s wars become our wars. Our hosting of the Pine Gap and North West Cape facilities are a case in point. We enter into these arrangements expecting, or perhaps just hoping, that US military support will be forthcoming in the event of a direct threat to Australia’s security.

As Richard Tanter has pointed out in fine detail, we do this knowing that these facilities support US nuclear-war targeting, US extra-judicial counter-terrorism killings, US plans for space warfare, not to mention US operations in highly volatile conflict zones, notably Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea.

How to explain the strange reasoning behind these choices? Part of the answer is that our political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence elites remain addicted to the military power associated with imperial centres. They see themselves as having privileged access to an exclusive and powerful club – once the British club, now the American club. They may have grasped the demise of the former but find it difficult to accept the slow but steady decline of the latter.

There is another important part to this story. It has to do with Australia’s longstanding fixation on threats. The sources of threat are usually said to be external. With the end of the Cold War, the Islamist and Chinese threats gradually replaced the Soviet threat. But foreign influences can also infiltrate and pose a danger from within. Not surprisingly, Jihadist elements and China sympathisers inside Australia have become integral to this narrative.

Obsessive threat perception merits close attention, for unchecked it becomes a potent force fanning the flames of militarism and escalating tensions in already troubled waters.

After September 2001, successive Australian governments have used the terrorist threat as the primary justification for an ever larger security apparatus endowed with vastly expanded powers and resources.

Between 2001 and 2010 ASIO experienced a threefold increase in its staff numbers and a sixfold increase in its budget. Its total budget currently stands at $573 million (up from $352 million in 2009-10). Over the same ten-year period the AFP budget has risen from $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion, and the ASIS budget from $202 million to $586 million.

Increased financial resourcing has been accompanied by innumerable new pieces of legislation and a long list of related measures. Several groups have been designated as terrorist organisations, passports have been cancelled or suspended, and steps taken to deny actual or potential terrorist cells access to financing. Other measures have included preventive detention orders, raids on homes and other premises, interrogation warrants, and detention and control orders.

Yet, Australia has experienced relatively few terrorist attacks on its soil since 2011, with less than thirty deaths resulting from such attacks. As a point of comparison, the same period has witnessed many more Indigenous deaths in custody (well over 400 since 2008), and many more women have died as a result of domestic violence (the current annual average is over 50).

Even allowing for the 2002 Bali bombings, it would be fair to say that Australia’s legislative, institutional, financial and psychological response has exceeded that of virtually any other country of comparable size and level of threat exposure.

Mirroring and reinforcing Australia’s sweeping domestic agenda has been its active regional involvement in countering Salafist-Jihadist movements, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. To this we should add the string of military deployments and training programs which have taken Australia to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as its active support for a range of other global counterterrorist initiatives.

Simply put, the terrorist threat became central to the entire architecture of Australia’s domestic and foreign policies. The formulation and execution of Australia’s counter-terrorist agenda fitted nicely with its longstanding preoccupation with external threats of non-Western provenance.

The agenda was all the more appealing in that it dovetailed neatly with Western, to wit American, interests and perceptions. The curtailment of civil liberties and more generally the democratic deficit that became integral to the war on terror became part of the price that had to be paid in the interests of ‘national security’.

In many ways, the China threat scenario serves a similar purpose. As previously argued, despite its remarkable economic rise, China’s capacity to project military muscle pales in comparison with America’s global military reach.

The possibility, however distant, that the Chinese navy may gain access to port or basing facilities in the Indio-Pacific region, is enough to raise eyebrows and provoke deep consternation. The fact that the United States, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, still has some 800 bases in foreign countries is regarded as normal.

The same holds for China’s efforts to establish links with Australian institutions and political, business and community leaders. These have become the source of unrelenting suspicion and dismay. By contrast, the longstanding networks of influence which the United States, Britain or Israel have developed across Australia’s political, military and intelligence landscape are viewed with relative equanimity.

For over a year now, Australia’s intelligence agencies have been issuing dire warnings about China’s ‘political influence activities’. All kinds of allegations – in some cases little more than rumours or speculation – have been making the rounds.

.A case in point were the allegations last year of unprecedented levels of foreign (meaning Chinese) interference in Australian universities. A year later, little of substance has come to light. The agreements regarding the governance of Confucius Institutes have been marginally tightened in the wake of media frenzy, but no evidence of undue influence has been produced.

The government driven University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which released its report in November last year, issued a series of non-prescriptive guidelines, but made no attempt to measure or substantiate claims of foreign interference in university research and education programs.

When appearing before the Senate Estimates Committee in October last year, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess, referred again to unacceptable levels of foreign interference, but gave no details of the nature, actual scope or source of the threat.

The pattern is now well established. When pressed on the lack of evidence in support of this or that claim, the government and the security apparatus which advises it invariably invoke national security as justification for the deafening silence.

Though it is too early to tell what the outcome will be, the recent raids on the homes of NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane and his staffer John Zhang have been shrouded in secrecy. Undisclosed sources have indicated that they are part of a wide-ranging investigation into alleged Chinese government attempts to influence a serving politician.

But critical questions are studiously ignored. Is the raid just a fishing expedition or does it rest on solid evidence? What constitutes undue or unacceptable influence? Who sets the relevant criteria? Should the investigation find that the member of parliament has not done anything illegal, when and how will he be recompensed for the prejudicial effect the investigation on his reputation and membership of the Parliament?

In any case, the consequences go far beyond the impact on any one individual. They could seriously impact on the already fragile Australia-China relationship. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already reacted by accusing Australia of extensive espionage activities and of ‘peddling rumours and stoking confrontation’. Tellingly, the Chinese statement referred to the cyber espionage, spying and surveillance activities of the Five Eyes Intelligence alliance that links Australia, the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.

Beijing has offered no evidence to support its accusations. But one thing is clear. The tit-for-tat exchanges between Beijing and Canberra are worryingly reminiscent of the toxic atmosphere between the two superpowers at the height of the Cold War and the steady militarisation of their respective societies.

The question is whether the Chinese and Australian governments have the presence of mind to renew the dialogue sufficiently to be able to put their respective concerns on the table and take remedial action before it is too late.

Notions of national security that place the accent on armed force and coercion seem ill-suited to the needs of the moment. It may be time to construct a new narrative that sees the power and civilisation shift now under way not as a threat but an opportunity to create a more cooperative international order attuned to the needs of people and the planet.

Joseph A. Camilleri OAM is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Visit his personal website here.

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Joseph Camilleri is managing director of Alexandria Agenda, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

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