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A People's Inquiry: Australia must reconsider its relationship with the U.S.

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U.S. President Donald Trump with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via YouTube)

It is time to re-evaluate the U.S.-Australian alliance in light of challenges such as international security and climate change, says Kellie Tranter. This is a transcript of the keynote address at the IPAN Inquiry launch: 'A People’s Inquiry', proudly partnered by Independent Australia.


I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and future.

May I thank IPAN, particularly Annette Brownlie, for inviting me to be a part of the first national public inquiry into the costs and consequences of the Australia-U.S. alliance.

May I also say what a privilege it is to be given the opportunity to work alongside the panel of experts Alison, Jeannie, Greg, Ian, Terry, Vince, Chad and Peter, who collectively bring such depth of knowledge, experience, wisdom, and energy to the conversation.

Our aim

Condensing the views of many experts to date on the direction in which we must head in terms of defence and foreign policy, the general consensus is that our aim is to:

  • be a responsible independent middle power taking a more independent position with multilateral organisations;
  • be respected internationally not only for our moral clarity, integrity and values but also for our domestic governance systems, constructive global activism and human rights advocacy, provided always that what we espouse must be consistent with what we practice at home;
  • recapture our strategic independence;
  • recognise the paramount importance of peace in the Pacific to our national interests;
  • determine our own foreign policy, respecting other nations and interests but looking after our own interests;
  • gradually downgrade military cooperation with the United States and involve the parliament and the people in the development of our foreign and defence policy;
  • be self-starting and self-reliant rather than sitting back waiting for a friend who may not come;
  • prioritise our own security;
  • understand that our future lies in South East Asia and make our way in Asia ourselves. Develop a coalition of interests; and
  • accept that we can’t squeeze China down and that Asia will not be shaped by U.S. military force or economic measures.


Achieving our aims requires leadership.

We are a competent people and should be a confident country. Our political leaders need to expend some political capital and time doing these things to prepare us for the new era that is dawning.

We need leaders with imagination, courage and intelligence, who will put the nation’s interests before their own. People who recognise that a time of change has come, who have sensible views about how it should be met and who can provide the leadership to drive change forward.

The current status

The current status is perhaps best summed up by Paul Keating when he said there’s “nothing ever impressive about Australia’s foreign policy".

We are a dependent middle power. We wait for signals from Washington before we speak.

There are not enough of our own foreign policy achievements. There are few examples of Australia deciding what it wants in the world, working out how to get there and taking steps to achieve that.

Australia is too closely tied to United States.

In July 2019, the U.S. made a $300 million push to expand naval facilities in the Northern Territory, with 2500 marines being rotated through Darwin in recent times.

It is unlawful and morally wrong to let another country take us to any war of aggression, but it is despicable to do so when those wars are based on lies and misinformation. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria are the most recent examples.

Apropos Afghanistan, too little reflection has come now, following the release of the Brereton report. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the Howard Government invoked the provisions of the ANZUS Treaty which references the United Nations Security Council in Articles I, IV and VI. UN Security Council resolutions 1368 and 1373 adopted before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 did not authorise the use of force and didn’t even mention Afghanistan.

We now know that the U.S. did not even seek specific legal support from the United Nations Security Council for its actions in Afghanistan.

The first Australian parliamentary debate about the war didn’t take place until October 2010, after we’d been there nearly a decade, and only after activists, lawyers, independent journalists, diplomats and humanitarian organisations had been publicly agitating for it.

A month later it was reported that the then Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, had cracked down on media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, gagging senior Defence Force officers and insisting that any media inquiries to the Defence Force be diverted to his office. Defence Force personnel were also barred from talking to the media during the parliamentary debate on the war.

The point missed by mainstream media is point 38 of the Brereton Report which states that:

The events discovered in this inquiry occurred within the ADF, by members of the ADF, under the command of the ADF. To the extent that the protracted and repeated deployment of the relatively small pool of Special Forces personnel to Afghanistan was a contributing factor – and it should be recognised that the vast majority of Special Forces personnel did repeatedly deploy to Afghanistan without resorting to war crimes- it was not a risk to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted.

If that is true, then the Government has allowed Defence Department to operate independently on foreign soil and without proper supervision. That is culpable in itself and, even accepting that the principles of ministerial responsibility and of military chains of command meshed with responsibility seem to have been thrown by the wayside, cannot continue.

On 18 November Australia was still waiting for a decision from Trump on an Afghanistan troop withdrawal so we could follow suit even though our government was sitting on the horrific findings of the Brereton report which was released publicly the next day.

So we have a report saying there’s credible evidence our soldiers have committed war crimes and we’re still waiting on Washington to tell us what to do.

How many lives could have been saved if all individual members of parliament and the Australian people were permitted to air their concerns and openly evaluate strategies without consequences.

How many people know that we currently have troops serving in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, Cyprus, South Korea, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and in every single State of the United States, either serving or embedded. 

My FOIs to find out precisely what we’re doing in the Golan Heights and the United States were declined.

One wonders what else Australia might have had knowledge of or been involved with overseas when in 2017 – a year after it was first reported that retired Australian Major General Mike Hindmarsh was serving as a senior advisor for the United Arab Emirates forces engaged in conflict in Yemen – we voted against a UN resolution about the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of people to self-determination.

And in September this year we voted against the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the UN Secretary-General on the causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa (A/RES/74/302).

We voted no and the African nations themselves voted yes. The same African nations we romanced for a time to secure a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, then abandoned, and whom we will have to court again when we next bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2029-30 given that for successful election to UN bodies African votes are key to reaching the required 2/3rds majority.

Australia’s position of doing everything it can to oppose the ban on nuclear weapons, because it believes we rely on U.S. nuclear weapons as a deterrent, is well known but misguided. It naively ignores the grave risks of “nukes” to all people of the world, particularly the scope for human error to lead to devastation, and leads to an absurdly militaristic mentality as demonstrated last year when we voted against a UN resolution for further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. That was no doubt because of our Government’s longer running enthusiasm to ‘deepen our cooperation with the United States on hypersonics’.

Post-COVID, Scott Morrison announced that Australia will ramp up defence spending to $270 billion over the next decade as the country prepares for a “post-COVID world that is poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly.

About $90 billion of that will be spent on advanced new kit, including “hypersonic” weapons, fighter jets and a cyber warfare capability. Australia will also put its own spy satellites in space.

Richard Speier, a member of the adjunct staff at the non-profit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation warned of the proliferation risks of hypersonics:

Hypersonic missiles travel at a speed of one mile per second or more — at least five times the speed of sound. They are able to evade and conceal their precise targets from defences until just seconds before impact. This leaves targeted states with almost no time to respond … It could authorise the military rather than the national leadership to conduct retaliatory strikes, but this would raise the risk of an accidental conflict.

We are enmeshed in the United States military machine. In Brian Toohey’s book Secret he states that:

The U.S. requires almost all countries that buy its weapons systems, including Australia, to send sensitive components back to the U.S. for repairs, maintenance and replacements without the owners being allowed access to critical information, including source codes, needed to keep these systems operating … Australia could not conduct operations requiring the use of its advanced weapons platforms for any length of time without U.S. support …This means we could be defenceless if attacked, unless the U.S. allows the Defence Force independent access to key operational components of fighter planes, missiles, submarines, surveillance systems and so on.

Australia’s relationship with China, on the other hand, is at its lowest point since diplomatic relations were established in 1972. We bait and antagonise.

In a July 2020 survey of how urban, educated Chinese view Australia’s bilateral relations going forward, 49.5% of respondents said the United States is the biggest impediment.

No doubt fuelled by Murdoch media and politicians, a Pew Research poll on 6 October 2020 found that negative views of China increased most in Australia, where 81% now say they see the country unfavourably.

Unsurprisingly, Australia abstained from voting on the yearly UN resolution about combating the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Australia’s justification for abstention can’t possibly be support for free speech and freedom of expression when its own citizen, Julian Assange, having exposed U.S. war crimes, sits in a high-security prison facing extradition to the United States where, according to U.S. prosecutors, first amendment protections don’t apply to foreign journalists. 

Our Government has done nothing and remains silent.

In terms of respect for an international rules-based order, last year Scott Morrison criticised the UN and called it an unaccountable internationalist body. Australia was criticised for blocking progress at the UN climate conference in Madrid by trying to use carryover credits for beating Kyoto targets.

We have long ignored international criticism of our treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians. We continue to permit the export of weapons and/or componentry to countries known for human rights. And we continue to abstain from votes calling for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

Our defence and foreign policies don’t seem to be underpinned by any strong or even substantial human rights values.

The path forward

I’m looking forward to the ideas generated by and through this Inquiry. The good news is that on the back of all I’ve said, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the defence-foreign policy space.

The first thing this requires is that Australia recognise and support the fact that diplomacy is vital to safeguarding our national interests. An annual spend of $28 billion on defence compared to $1 billion on diplomacy is unsustainable and moronic. Not only that, but it has been reported that a numerical deficiency in strategically-minded staff at DFAT has allowed Home Affairs and Defence Departments to step in and fill the strategic void.

The late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warned that:

‘If the United States goes to war in the Pacific we don’t have an option to stay out of it. That as it stands the Australian Prime Minister has no capacity to stand up in Parliament and say we’re going to pass this one by because of U.S. troops in Darwin and presence of Pine Gap.'

Fraser called it a 'total betrayal of Australian sovereignty, the parliament and the people'.

He proposed giving the United States 6-12 months to put their troops somewhere else, and to pull out embedded troops where it would lead to a conflict of interest.   

He said Pine Gap would be more difficult, suggesting we give the United States four to five years to replicate Pine Gap somewhere else but pull out Australian personnel so it becomes known that it is a U.S.-controlled base. Signal that we’re not complicit.

In considering Pine Gap it’s important to remember that WikiLeaks released a U.S. Strategic Sites List of 300 sites critical to U.S. national interests and that would critically impact on the U.S.’s ability to defend itself. It did not include Pine Gap.

I would also add that Australia must demand that it be able to operate key defence systems independently of the United States.

Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University, Hugh White, has already pointed out that in ten years from now, China’s GDP will be U.S. $42.4 trillion (57.4 trillion AUD) and America’s U.S. $24 trillion (32.5 trillion AUD), that money is power and that the United States will be unable to persuade or compel China to live within the rules of a regional order U.S. has set and upheld for so long. 

At a National Press Club meeting in August the Deputy head of mission for China’s embassy in Australia, Wang Xining, offered his embassy’s offices to get Ministers talking to each other. Assuming the Chinese wouldn’t adopt Australia’s approach to negotiations with East Timor and plant bugs, that sounds like a good place to start in terms of understanding, building relationships, testing each other and permitting criticism where necessary and warranted.

Australia needs a concerted effort to show it is serious about engaging with China. A strategy for enhancing Australian-Chinese relations. Possibilities might include a specific plan to open up dialogue, targeted ministerial letters highlighting opportunities for engagement, the expansion of DFAT’s South East Asia expertise, investment in the expansion of our diplomatic network in China and it might, just might, help if the Prime Minister actually visited China.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating sees the United States as a balancer or conciliator in South East Asia, bearing in mind the United States is on the other side of the world. A new President in the White House wanting to restore America’s international reputation may now offer us a chance to reset the current trajectory towards war with China, even if that desire is fuelled in part by his own or his family’s commercial self-interest.

I would like to end on climate change. 

Within about a decade, dealing with the consequences of climate change will be the only game in town.

Dr Jaci Brown, research director at the CSIRO’s climate science centre, says that in ten to 20 years’ time, our 2019 climate will not be seen as unusual and that this decade will be one of the coolest in the next hundred years.

The recent Bushfire Royal Commission Report noted that warming over the next two decades is baked in. If we start acting now containment is the best likely outcome. 

Action on climate change is in our national interests and defence procurement must align with that purpose. Needless to say, it is my view that it’s pure insanity for the Federal government not to endorse the key recommendation of the Bushfire Royal Commission to create its own aerial water-bombing fleet. 

At least defence seems to be close to the head of the pack in terms of awareness and concern.

In a 2019 speech, General Campbell warned that:

In about ten years from now global warming above pre-industrial levels is set to rise by 50%. At 1.5 degrees of warming we can expect more significant impacts. Particularly in regards to oceans, low-lying areas and human health. The poor and most vulnerable will be hardest hit. Livelihoods lost. Food scarce. Populations displaced. Diseases spreading. And this now looks like our best-case scenario.

My views on political failure to deal with climate change and the over-reliance on defence to deal with its consequences are well known.  

By itself, defence will not be able to cope with the likely concurrent events, and one can only assume the same problem exists for the United States.

Indeed the Pentagon is planning for extreme temperatures, collapsing countries, wars on multiple continents and simultaneous natural disasters in circumstances where there are not enough troops to defend the United States and to address foreign catastrophes.

In short, a substantial degradation of the ability to deal with conventional military problems, but in the context of a demonstrated inability of the United States government to respond properly, in terms of both logistics and capacity, to its own domestic crises. The problem was clear after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but its tragic depth only really surfaced in the parlous lack of response to the ongoing COVID nightmare. 

One must ask, if a situation arose where the U.S. has to choose between allocating scarce military resources between preserving one of its imperial conquests and dealing with an out of control crisis at home, would the exceptionalist American psyche permit the embarrassment of an overseas withdrawal of an occupying force.

Mother Nature will almost certainly force our hand to navigate our own way forward independently of the United States. We shouldn’t wait for a crisis to get us to that point: we had better begin planning our route while it’s still light.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and a human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter. You can learn more about the IPAN 'A People’s Inquiry: Exploring the case for an Independent and Peaceful Australia' and make a submission HERE.

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