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Media must inform public of true 'values and interests' driving foreign policy

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged $270 billion to the purchase of long-range missiles in our "national interest" (Image by Dan Jensen)

The mainstream media has a duty to see through our government's political smokescreen when it comes to national interest, writes Timothy Ginty.

ANNOUNCING THE Federal Government's $270 billion dollar program of military expansion, Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered a speech thick with the language of “values”.

Morrison said:

“...our decisions as a nation are a reflection of our character and our values and so are these decisions today. What we believe in. And if need be, what we will defend.”

Those decisions he was referring to include the purchase of long-range missiles, the development of cyber-warfare capabilities and the investigation of hyper-sonic weaponry.

This radical expansion of Australia's capacity to inflict violence, we were assured, was to protect Australian sovereignty:

“Sovereignty means self-respect, freedom to be who we are, ourselves, independence, free-thinking. We will never surrender this. Never. Ever.”

That politicians routinely employ the liberal discourse of “values”, an imagined “rules-based order” and an undefined “national interest” to justify belligerent foreign policy is not surprising.

And that politicians speak of states that, like individuals, possess character, collect friends and enemies, that they have faculty for psychological traits like self-respect and that a nation as a whole may make decisions that reflect shared beliefs, is hardly new.

But what is disappointing is how large sections of the Australian media echo this discourse with scant space for critical reflection or questioning.

This tradition of homogenising a population's conflicting communities, ideologies and practises through the embodiment of a living, thinking state is a long one, especially popular in liberal international relations theory. And it is a dangerous one.

It is dangerous because such language defers authority for determining such “values” and the “national interest” to an elite group of politicians and bureaucrats.

It assumes that there is no dissent in determining what exactly are such things as national interests and values and that there are no other more prominent interests to citizens, such as material and class interests.

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Is it not a threat to our national interest to participate in a regional arms race? Is it in our national interest to cut humanitarian aid and development spending to a mere 0.19 per cent of Gross National Income? Such questions rarely filter into the thinking of Australian mainstream media practitioners.

Instead of parroting such noble-sounding concepts as “the liberal, rules-based order”, in which our government is assumed to defend our “national interests” and project our “values” through developing well-considered strategic doctrine, the Australian media must ask critical questions of our elected representatives.

The debate over what constitutes Australian and democratic values and how to realise them does not stop at our border.

Australian journalists know that:

  • the War on Iraq represented the greatest trashing of the supposed “liberal, rules-based order” since the Vietnam War;
  • this government is one of only two countries to oppose a June 2020 U.N. vote condemning Israel’s illegal annexation of one-third of the West Bank;
  • the current government is seeking to dilute the effect of the Paris Climate Agreement by using “carry over credits” from the Kyoto Protocol to avoid reducing real emissions and it is the only country in the world seeking to do so;
  • this government has cut funding to the diplomatic corps from $8.3 billion to $6.7 billion;
  • our governments have illegally spied on our neighbour East Timor in an attempt to block its legitimate aspirations for resource sovereignty;
  • our governments, of both major parties, systematically breach the spirit and letter of the U.N. Refugee Convention and its principles of non-refoulment, the right to seek asylum, the right to a fair trial and the freedom from arbitrary arrest;
  • the current government actively undermined the international campaign to establish a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons;
  • the Australian Defence Force is currently being investigated for 55 separate “incidents” of war crimes in Afghanistan;
  • our government has chosen silence in the face of Indonesia's brutal military suppression of free speech in the occupied territory of West Papua;
  • our government provides opaque military aid and training to some of the region's most notorious regimes, including Myanmar and the Philippines;
  • the line between government and the war industry is growing increasingly blurry, epitomised by former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne’s recruitment to the consulting firm EY to build its military contracts and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s work for the private contractor Palladium;
  • our government permits the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian government which is responsible for financially and ideologically supporting Salafist and Wahhabist terrorists across the Middle East and for driving the devastating war in Yemen;
  • the current government also permitted the sale of weapons to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates, countries found to be responsible for war crimes and systematic human rights violations; and
  • one of their own, Julian Assange, has been abandoned by his government and is currently in a state of psychological breakdown as he contemplates extradition to the U.S. from a maximum-security London prison.

Australian journalists ought to know, then, that Australian governments systematically sacrifice our supposed “values” in a trade-off for gains in corporate financial interests, domestic political considerations and minute geopolitical calculations.

There are few areas of politics in which hypocrisy is more glaring than foreign affairs. And in an age of nuclear sabre-rattling, it is paramount that the questioning, writing and broadcasting of Australian media highlights this hypocrisy, lest the public once again places poorly-informed trust in a government to declare and wage unjust wars that threaten our most elemental interests: the lives of ourselves, our families and our friends abroad.

Timothy Ginty is a freelance journalist based in Sydney. You can read more from Tim on his blog, Lives and Times: Writing on the World Around Us or follow him on Twitter @TimGinty.

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