Unbeknown to most Australians, a court case has been underway in Alice Springs over the past few months with implications far and wide. Employing a sixty year old law drafted during the height of the anti-communist 1950s in Australia, the Federal Government has called for seven years jail for each member of a small group of people known as the Pine Gap Peace Pilgrims, whose only offence was singing and praying in the grounds of Pine Gap in 2016.
Many of us are today quite well aware of Pine Gap, the secretive United States spy base near Alice Springs. It plays a central role collecting all of the phone calls and internet traffic from everyday Australians, and relays essential targeting information to American forces using drones in illegal wars in the Middle East. For more than forty years Pine Gap has been the focus of protests by many thousands of Australians.
In October last year, hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered in Alice Springs to highlight the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Pine Gap. Representatives from over sixty organisations around Australia – mostly church groups, peace movements, community organisations and trade unions – gathered in a conference calling for an independent and peaceful Australia, and an end to the decades long policy, employed by governments of both persuasions, of subservience to American militarism and fighting wars around the world. Some also gathered outside the gates of Pine Gap to protest the existence of a foreign military base on Australian soil that contributes to the “collateral” deaths of thousands in the Middle East, as well as to the US illegal assassination program.
For six people at these protests, their conscience and religious convictions led them to climb the chain wire fence of Pine Gap, and sit quietly inside, praying and singing. They knew full well that this act was itself illegal. Yet they saw their action as continuing a long and important tradition of civil disobedience – breaking an unjust law in order to highlight even greater injustice. In this case the greater injustice is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and exodus of millions of refugees, directly as a result of US interventions in countries around the Middle East. This is with the direct compliance of Australian Governments, who dispatch young men and women in our armed forces – in the name of, and paid for by, we the Australian people.
That simple act of defiance by the Pine gap peace pilgrims led to their arrest. To highlight these gross injustices they were fully prepared to accept fines under the Commonwealth Crimes Act, as have protestors in past actions. In fact the judge in Alice Springs threw the case out of court on a technicality.
However, victory for our six peace pilgrims was not to be. The Federal Government stepped in to lay new charges against them, this time using the Defence Special Undertakings Act of 1952. This little known Act was put into place by the Menzies Government when it allowed secret British nuclear tests to be carried out on Australian soil, with conscious disregard for the terrible consequences for indigenous peoples living in the vicinity of those tests. The government at the time had mounted a concerted campaign against communism, first trying to pass a law and then holding a referendum to ban the Communist Party and by extension its leadership of protests against the nuclear madness of that time. Both measures were rejected by the Australian people.
During the past few decades, with ongoing protests against not only Pine Gap but also other foreign bases in Australia, Federal Governments from both sides of politics have modified this draconian law to include Pine Gap specifically.
Hence we have arrived at the absurd situation today where six people have been threatened with seven years jail for singing and praying in a joint Australian/United States facility – one that is arguably assisting illegal assassinations of people who the United States government deems undesirable and is in the process killing many hundreds of innocent men women and children.
The outcome of this case is that the six protestors have been given fines ranging from $1250 to $5000. Undoubtedly this struggle is far from over. At least one of them has already said he will not pay his fine. Everyday people from across Australia will call into question the actions of a government with such seriously warped – in fact, murderous –priorities acting in their name.
Yet we can learn two very important lessons from the experience to date in this case. Australian democracy is under serious threat from a creeping dictatorial regime of intimidation. Those fleeing death and persecution in foreign wars have felt it directly when they have travelled to what used to be known as the safety of Australian shores. Australian workers feel this intimidation every day they struggle to maintain safe and fair workplaces, and their employers use deep pockets and the common law to put their homes, their families and their union organisations under threat. Young and old people protesting the environmental destruction wrought by large corporations have felt the intimidation that these multinationals can bring to bear on small groups of activists. Now we have seen peaceful and non-violent protestors facing many years in jail – a response purely to deter others from protesting.
The second lesson from this case is just as striking. It appears at first sight to be a case of using a large sledgehammer – a law with quite draconian penalties – to crush a tiny walnut – a relatively small and benign protest action. Yet the severity of the government reaction suggests this government sees these protests not as a tiny walnut, but rather as a small seed – one that can in time grow to add to a large and significant opposition movement. As Paul Kelly’s iconic song puts it, “From little things, big things grow”. There has been considerable debate among those with an interest in the role of the United States bases and troops in Australia, as to whether the purpose of these facilities is primarily for the defence of Australia, or primarily as a key part of US military conflicts around the globe. After all, the very presence of Pine Gap in Australia makes this nation a possible target for US opponents.
The protests against Pine Gap have focussed on its role in US war fighting strategies. So when we see these protestors being suppressed and so aggressively intimidated, the striking lesson we can draw is that the protests are “on target”. There is no longer any doubt that Pine Gap is a base of considerable importance to US military operations worldwide.
It is time for the Australian people to have a real say in Pine Gap’s future. In a very grave way, it may be intrinsic to the future of our national security.
Ross Gwyther is retired research geophysicist and trade union organiser, having been active for many years in community peace and environmental politics, and currently on the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.