How many Yemeni children have to die from the famine before Australia stops selling weapons to the Saudis, who are coordinating the blockade that is causing mass starvation? In November last year Save the Children reported that 85,000 children have died from acute malnutrition, and last week the UN reports the situation has worsened. Not only does the Australian government boast of its weapons deals with Saudi Arabia, but also it has emerged the Australian government is heavily subsiding companies involved in these sales. For example, Electro Optic Systems, which makes weaponry enables remote operation of cannon, machine guns and missile launchers, received $36 million dollars of taxpayer funds.
The government has abandoned any sense of ethical responsibility. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that when they first came into Parliament they replaced the Standards of Ministerial Ethics with a Statement of Ministerial Standards. And the standards have fallen dramatically.
On one of his five taxpayer-funded sales trips to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, our then Minister for Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, boasted of millions in weapons contracts and since has flagged negotiating a defence cooperation memorandum of understanding with the Saudis. In addition to the current blockade, the Saudis are notorious for their poor human rights, stand accused of war crimes in Yemen and have orchestrated the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi weapons sales are in clear contravention of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, a treaty that Australia signed and was instrumental in developing.
Save the Children has called for a halt to Australian military exports to Saudi Arabia. Spokesman Mat Tinkler said “Australia should use its place on the world stage to end human rights abuses, rather than supplying means to potentially prolong them”.
In the UK, a committee of the House of Lords reported several days ago that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. Last week the US House of Representatives voted to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia and its allies fighting in Yemen. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been suspended by Germany, Finland, Netherlands and Denmark because of the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen.
In contrast the federal government allocated $3.8 billion in January 2018 to propping up the weapons industry in Australia, under the mantra of “jobs and growth” and boosting exports. The Middle East is a “priority market”.
The impending Avalon Air Show and the large weapons trade fair that sits behind it are heavily subsidised. Indeed it would startle most ratepayers of Greater Geelong that they are giving over half a million dollars to organisers Aerospace Australia Ltd.
However the federal and Victorian governments try to minimise funding to Avalon, responding to FOI inquiries initially denying subsidies, then saying budgets are incomplete or citing “commercial in confidence”. At least Geelong is transparent about its funding.
The government’s “jobs” justifications are easily discounted. For every dollar spent on the weapons trade, there is less available for crucial societal needs. In addition there is good research showing that for the same subsidy, many more jobs are created in health care, education and clean energy.
Why does government throw money at the weapons manufacturers, when they face the same challenges as the car manufacturers? Tony Abbott was scathing about car industry subsidies. Such largesse raises questions about undue influence – from lobbying, political donations and the revolving door for politicians and senior military personnel into the boards of the weapons industry.
In his 1961 farewell speech, President Eisenhower warned of the growing power of the military industrial complex. In 2019 in Australia we are seeing this complex actively co-opting the political and educational sector.
Weapons companies are courting educational institutions, as Lockheed Martin’s partnerships with Melbourne University and RMIT illustrate. Questacon and the Australian War Memorial also rely on weapons company funds. Subsidising school STEM programs is a “winner”.
What does this mean for Australia? We have a Minister for Defence Industry, while New Zealand has a Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control. We are rapidly increasing our defence budget, while our diplomatic and foreign aid budgets sink to shameful levels.
Regulation of the arms trade is complex. Transparency and accountability are essential.
We must comply with the Arms Trade Treaty. We need an effective anti-corruption commission to address concerns about undue influence in the weapons industry, and tighter regulation of lobbying, board appointments and limits on political donations.
Continuing to sell to the Saudis, regardless of claims about when or where those weapons will be used, is clearly immoral. Heavily subsidising an industry that profits from death and misery is unacceptable. Government hypocrisy must be called out.
Dr Margaret Beavis is Immediate Past President of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, Australia.