The militarisation of Australia

The military in Australia has been played into a key role in the national narrative. Its achievements have been woven into myth. External threat has long been part of the political fabric.

The Australian Defence Force and para-military organisations are seen as protectors of the political class and enjoy protected status as a result. As security organisations proliferate, the military has moved toward the centre. Climate change and Covid-19 have consolidated their social and political importance.

The foundation of Australia was a military exercise. About 200 British Marines supervised 754 convict men, women and children in the colony of Sydney from 1788. Governor Captain Arthur Phillip was replaced by Major Francis Grose, who turned the colony into a military dictatorship. Officers traded in rum and were awarded large tracts of land.

From 1788 until 1870, 24 British regiments served in Australia under military governors. From 1870 the colonies took responsibility for their own defence until Federation. These forces established the tradition of going to the aid of England, even when we were not needed. Men from the colonies volunteered to fight in New Zealand, the Sudan, South Africa and China between 1861 and 1902.

Convinced war was coming, the British sent military reformer Lord Haldane to Australia in 1911. He recommended compulsory military training and the introduction of school cadets. On the outbreak of war in 1914, 20,000 young Australians joined the army. Out of a population of five million, 416,000 signed up, of whom 330,000 served overseas. We did not need to be there.

The Australian war correspondent CEW Bean was appointed official historian. He wrote dispassionately of the horror and put order where there was none. His was a boy’s own history, preparing the next generation for war. He advocated for a war memorial in Canberra which in design and display prepared the ground for the deification of Australian involvement in war. Bean was the father of the Anzac legend, which is fascist and racist in manifestation. Where you and I might have seen crude and foul-mouthed grafters, Bean saw beautiful boys. He loved them. I have been in the army; I have seen a different reality.

April 25, the day Australian troops went ashore at Gallipoli, was designated a national day of remembrance, attracting big crowds between the wars. By the end of WWII it was an even bigger event with dawn services and marches through cities and towns by ex-servicemen.

WWII saw the militarisation of Australia. Out of a population of 7.3 million in 1944 Australia had one million people in uniform. There were 730,000 in the army, of whom 400,000 served overseas. Australia made uniforms, small arms, artillery, tanks, planes, and naval and supply vessels.

All things military had sunk into the Australian psyche by 1945. But not all embraced Anzac Day. Some saw it as showy and shallow, having little to do with remembering friends.. Many knew all too well of the violence and nastiness that lay beneath the surface once alcohol had a grip, the wives better than most.

From 1950-1953, 17,000 Australian troops fought against the Chinese in an American-dominated UN force in Korea. Prime Minister Robert Menzies took the country to war in Vietnam. He believed that Chinese-backed Communism was on a southward march through Vietnam and gave secret undertakings to the Americans that Australia would support them.

Knowing this, he introduced legislation to conscript 20-yearold. Once the bill passed through parliament Menzies announced that conscripts would fight in Vietnam. It was an act of treachery. Vietnam led to a vocal and determined anti-war movement. Australia withdrew in 1972 following the election of Gough Whitlam. Anzac Day and the jingoistic response to war that went with it was discredited; it sank into disrepute until prime minister Bob Hawke visited Gallipoli in 1990 and thus revived Anzac Day.

Hawke and Kim Beazley, as defence minister, embarked on substantial spending linked to a new assertive forward defence policy.

However, it was John Howard who unashamedly used Anzac Day, the uniform and flag to underpin his prime ministership. After 9/11 Howard committed troops to Afghanistan and then illegally to war in Iraq. Howard maximised photo opportunities, attending dock-side departures, returns and funerals. He was fascinated and intimidated by uniforms and used them shamelessly.

His so-called war on terror enabled the militarisation of Australia to proceed apace and a framework was established to accommodate a future police state. From 2001, 82 terrorism laws were enacted. By contrast, the police state of apartheid South Africa had nine laws relating to terrorism.

In 2000 Howard had parliament pass the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Act, which gave the government the power to call out the armed forces on domestic soil against perceived threats to ‘Commonwealth interests’. If deemed necessary the ADF may shoot to kill. A first for Australia, it is  a most dangerous piece of legislation. And Labor under Beazley did not oppose the bill.

The Act states that ‘the Governor-General is to act with the advice of Executive Council or in an emergency, the authorising Minister.’ Probably why military men are favoured as governors-general – they are more likely to comply with a request to turn out the troops.

Howard’s reluctant but successful intervention in East Timor under General Cosgrove in 1999 enhanced his reputation as a war-time leader and furthered the militarisation of Australia. He twisted the narrative to ensure that any attack on him was an attack on ADF personnel.

Because the debate on national security centred around the war on terror, questions on policy were cast as disloyal. The Labor Party have been unwilling to challenge that narrative and cannot lay a glove on the Coalition in relation to security and defence issues.

Patriotism and loyalty have become bound into the outdated Anzac myth, the prosecution and celebration of it now often referred to as Anzacery. It celebrates a white Anglo narrative and has no relevance to or understanding among newer minority ethnic groups. It has been captured by the political right.

The ADF enjoys iconic status, woven into the Anzac myth and portrayed as a protector and nurturer of the Anzac spirit.

The four-year celebration from 2014 to 2018 of Australian participation in WWI cost $600 million plus there was $200 million for Abbott’s museum at Villers Bretonneux, plus another $500 million to ‘upgrade’ the themed War Memorial in Canberra.

Funds for militarisation and securitisation appear unlimited and beyond parliamentary scrutiny. In 2006 Howard authorised paramilitary training for the Australian Federal Police (AFP), training that presumably continues. It can be assumed elements of the Australian Border Force (ABF) also receive paramilitary training. The ABF came into existence in 2015, and one-quarter of its members are armed.

The Department of Home Affairs was established in 2017. It has oversight of the AFP, ASIO, ABF, ACIC and Austrac. Other intelligence agencies include ONI, ASIS, DIO, ASD and AGO. Then there is the AIC, NIC, NSC, NICC, NICMC, NIOSC and ANZCTC. Yes, it is a cat’s breakfast. The proliferation of agencies highlights the growth of the terrorism industry, reflected in this empire building. The industry has now shifted its focus to China, which offers prospects for growth in unearthing evil intent.

Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs, has a powerful base for exercising control over fellow Australians. Left to his own devices he would tap our phones and monitor our devices. The ACTU’s Sally McManus believes he already does. I now have the same attitude to my phone in Australia as I did in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Parliamentary scrutiny of this basket of cats is almost non-existent, due to a lack of will and an attitude that it would be disloyal to dig up dirt.

Patriotism is defined by the ruling LNP and supported by Labor. China has now been identified as the enemy. It is best to go along with that narrative lest your home is raided, travel restricted and phone tapped. The Anzac myth is deployed in these times as an appeal to a higher order of nationalism requiring sacrifice of some liberties and compliance with unpopular directives. It has reached its use-by date but nothing else is on offer.

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Bruce Douglas Haigh is an Australian political commentator and former diplomat.

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