The Turnbull Government's latest brainwave: Let's make more weapons

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Minister for Defence Pyne and Prime Minister Turnbull announce plan to boost defence exports (screen shot via abc.net.au).

Not content with its brutal anti-asylum campaign and internment process, the Turnbull Government wants to establish a reputation as a major weapons exporter, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.


It is a perennial condition of the political classes in the antipodes. 

Distant from the killing, the marauding, the mayhem of political conflict that affects countries across Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, the isolated crave recognition, acknowledgement and reverence. Australia, in other words, wants to be noticed.

In one sense, it is being noticed for its brutal anti-asylum campaign that places paper and process above blood and life. But having a Pacific internment process that defeats rather than fulfils the obligations of international refugee law is not sufficient for Australia’s Turnbull Government. 

Nor is it sufficient to have a policy that finds weaning off fossil fuels not only untenable but grotesque. What is needed, in the latest policy brainwave, is for Australia to take the world by storm with its armaments. 

This won’t be an easy thing. The United States, Russia, France, Germany, China and the United Kingdom have done much to secure shares. There might be much sanctimonious emoting on the issue of rights and human welfare in some instances: France, the voice of civilisation; Britain, the voice of reasoned wisdom; and the United States, a combine of all. But not a single government in these states is concerned that weapons have no agency, conscience or sentience. 

What matters is the buck, the pound or the euro that exchanges hands. (It should be noted here that there are periodic moments of moral apoplexy — the embargo, for instance, of the Obama Administration of Egypt, for a time, but it did not last.)

Reports of Australia’s role in the international arms industry resemble scoffing reports of recent Olympic performances, though they are sometimes accompanied by nauseating references to the successes of Australian know-how. 

A release from the Prime Minister’s office states:

'Australia has so many defence success stories: Thales’ Bushmaster, Hawkei and sonars, Austal’s ships and engineering, and CEA’s world-beating radar, amongst many others.'

Why the fuss? Australian exporters, it seems, are simply not getting a murderous bang for their buck, lagging behind their wilier and, in some cases, bossier counterparts. China, for instance, storms in with a 76 per cent increase in arms exports for 2012-6. At number 20 in the world, with an anxiety-inducing 0.3 per cent, Australian arm manufacturers demand a bit of caritas be thrown their way.

This is even more critical given that the volume of international transfers of major weapons is increasing and is, in fact, higher than at any time since the Cold War. So much for the invocations about the “end of history” as advanced by the ill-considered Francis Fukuyama, who imagined a post-Cold War world filled with sports spectacles and mind-numbing tea ceremonies. Governments and the companies they sponsor are not necessarily in the business of peace. War may kill, but it also pays.

Between 2012-2016, an 8.4 per cent increase in arms exports was registered from the previous period of 2007-2011. A source of concern for the amoral vacuums that occupy the halls of Canberra’s offices should be the increase in the flow of arms to Asia, Oceania and the Middle East during the 2012-16 period. Producer meets purchasing recipient; recipient meets civilian or combatant with destructive force. These are regions that require calming, not agitation, a demilitarisation rather than an overly enthusiastic embrace of arms.

The running line in the Turnbull Government’s plan is a $3.8 billion outlay for a Defence Export Facility to assist the merchants and engineers of death get their runs on the tally board for Australian industry — so much so that Turnbull is banking to push Australia into the top ten exporters. Instead of focusing on mitigating technology in the context of climate change and rolling back environmental degradation – or, indeed, any other strategy that would advance that novel cause of peace, the Turnbull Government is keen to get its hands dirty in the lethal business. Now that is something a few Coalition backbenchers will understand.

The language of the announcement is sterile, avoiding any reference to the consequences of having such an industry. 

A media release from the Prime Minister's office stated:

'It is an ambitious, positive plan to boost Australian industry, increase investment, and create more jobs for Australian businesses.'

The Department of Defence is more chest-thumpingly enthused, claiming that Australian industry 'cannot sustain itself on the needs of the Australian Defence Force alone'.

The admission is telling — defence may be a patriotic duty, but it does not, in and of itself, make profits as this Department of Defence report states:

'New markets and opportunities to diversity are required to help unlock the full potential of the Australian defence industry to grow, innovate, and support Defence’s future needs.'

The Defence Export Strategy reduces the business of state-sanctioned murder to a budgetary exercise and makes the unprincipled assertion that Australian defence needs to be sustained by exporting weapons to other states. To triumph, others must blow their heads off — an absurd proposition that is built into all arms industries. 

There will be, for instance, an Australian Defence Export Office linked with Austrade and the Centre for Defence Industry Capability. An Australian Defence Export Advocate – because that’s what arms industrialists need – will be created. Monies are also going to be directed at implementation and support, along with the usual management guff that accompanies such announcements.

Spokesperson for the Independent Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN), Stephen Darley, finds it all rather rich.

Darley told me:

Australia becoming a major arms exporter is just what the world doesn’t need now. What is needed is an independent voice seeking diplomatic and peaceful resolution of conflicts, not a country boosting the arms race and the profits of arms manufacturers who rely on the existence of conflicts.

Darley may not have to worry. Australia’s innovations in the military sphere, despite the pious releases from the Government's publicity arms, tend to fail. Bureaucratic incompetence, a dubious distribution of resources, and the political horse-trading will also make the scheme questionable. Australia’s military-industrial complex may well remain minuscule, suffering appropriate and further retardation in due course. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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