Accelerating securitisation and militarisation in Australian politics: symptoms of democracy in decline.

As though these trends are not worrying enough in themselves, in the present, they need to be understood as effects rather than causes. And the causes are even more frightening.

Of what do we speak? An example which allows us to see precedents and prospects will suffice: Operation Sovereign Borders, designed as a military response to redress what the government claimed was a “border crisis:” specifically it defined the illegal, or irregular, arrival of asylum seekers by boats seeking to land on the Australian coast a security threat which mandated a military response.

In due course, three Amy officers of General rank and an Air Vice Marshall have been appointed to command the resultant Taskforce and its constituent Task Groups. Of considerable concern is that within the design of the Operation, these commanders were to report directly to the Minister of Immigration, not the Chief of Defence, a significant departure from the chain of command. It is not an exaggeration to conclude that such arrangements politicised the Australian Defence Force.

In due course, too, but as a result of government attempting to evade responsibility and accountability, Sovereign Borders became a locus for contraventions of UN Conventions, breaches of international maritime law, unwarranted secrecy, and a notable disposition to deceive the Australian public.

That these tendencies have intensified over recent years and, for the most part, have passed as unremarkable in society at large is testimony to the ease with which they have entered into everyday life for a largely passive citizenry.

When did it begin? There is no precise date because the process is an underlying one when it is not explicit or manifest. The obsessive and misdirected remembrance of wars past through the prism of Gallipoli and subsequent accounts which reduce to fables rather than history bears this out. By way of the glorification of the armed forces, weapons, displays of military power, and foreign deployments the process is both reproduced, perpetuated and ever more deeply ingrained.

But if an approximate time must be selected, the origin’s of the current wave would coincide with, and gradually be reinforced by, the post-Vietnam War arrival of “boat people,” the destabilising effects – political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual – as turbo-charged, predatory globalisation was imposed on Australian society at a pace greater than it could adjust to.

This destabilisation was then intensified and accelerated by the events of 9/11, and the awareness of the destructive power of a new variant of terrorism which erupted in a state of hyper-vigilance and an obsessive-compulsive focus on national security.

Where, prior to 9/11, the Cold War ordained a more or less generalised paranoia which, nevertheless, did not preclude forms of liberal democracy, the period since has been replete with constellating developments which have only, in their application to government discourse, and the products of the think tanks, framed it as one of significant ongoing threats to the national interest, which is to say, a permanent crisis requiring an immediate response.

It is a permissive environment for anti-democratic initiatives. The world is proclaimed to be essentially anarchic and threatening, and in terms congruent with those which have historically preceded violent conflict, interstate and civil. By way of an indicative schedule only, the threats include China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia; depending on taste, certain categories of Muslims, illegal migrants, certain Chinese students, drug traffickers, universities as incubators of radicalism, and academics who are disloyal are added to the confection.

It foments violent sentiments, and prophecies of fierce culminations. Underpinning it all is the belief that the fundamental sources of our insecurity are the to be found in the weaknesses of the liberal democratic state which can only be overcome by a sovereign powerful enough to shamelessly effect the necessary actions.

The proffered response, then, is to prorogue what has previously passed as normal in a project which is essentially the preparation for war. Darwin becomes a home for the US Marines, secrecy surrounds Australian weapons sales to countries accused of war crimes, and the public’s interest in such matters is stifled.

Demands by ASIO and Home Affairs for greater surveillance powers supplement a suite of measures which, taken together, reproach the constitutional notions of separation of powers, civil-military relations, accountability, and responsibility which are the hallmarks of an open society and a democratic polity.

Normal, logical thought is eventually pre-empted by being filtered through the threat-security prism – no better example being the very recent proposal by the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to co-opt the Five Eyes signals intelligence arrangement to facilitate the economic response to post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

We live, therefore, in a time of national and global, multi-dimensional, strategic crises – that time of radical discontinuity known classically as the Interregnum, and defined as one in which “the old is dying . . . the new cannot be born [and] a vast variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Ostensibly, the period is transitional – hence the inferred proclamation of justitium from Roman antiquity – in which, though the old laws are suspended, there is the anticipation that new and different laws will be proclaimed by the emergent order.

Pronounced is a mindset among those wielding power to view truth and the many other obligations they owe to the commonwealth as optional, even disposable.

Welcome to the State of Exception beyond the state of urgency – a template devised not in Heaven, but in Weimar Germany by the supreme anti-liberal, virulent anti-Semite, legal theorist, Carl Schmitt. In his formulation, crisis makes and legalises the sovereign. And it does so by manifesting its ultimate power in an in-your-face way, not so much by making new laws (though it might do so) but by suspending those which are the bedrock of the normal.

It is not an exaggeration to describe such moves, depending on their frequency and magnitude over time as increments towards a constitutional dictatorship. The sovereign always declares in the beginning that, when the time is right, a return will be made to the rule of law.

This is a false hope. What those who have enjoyed the benefits of a state of exception most crave is its indefinite extension – to have its undemocratic conditions transformed permanently into the new norm. In the presence of long-standing habits of militarism and securitisation, enemies are always discoverable and democracy always discretionary.

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Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University. Formerly he taught International Relations (Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict) at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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