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(Image via ipan.org.au)

The eagerness of Australian leaders to be ardent devotees to the U.S. and its military interference dominated discussions at the recent IPAN conference in Melbourne. Dr Binoy Kampmark reports.

THE EARNESTNESS of the peace activist can be frightening.

At the Maritime Union of Australia’s (MUA) Melbourne headquarters on Ireland Street, there was as much by way of earnestness as biscuits and coffee.

The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) organisers had been diligently gathering some brass from the trove of protest. The theme was unmistakable, the bugbear beyond question: the United States and its bases.

The gathering, taking place over September 8-10, had been injected with a certain, existential graveness. With the dogs of war lurking in the wings and coming closer, participants were delivering their addresses with urgency — a note of worry. They did so in a room festooned with loud banners: 'End the occupation of Palestine'; 'The Women’s International League For Peace Freedom'; 'Stop Australian involvement in U.S.-led Wars of Aggression'

The edginess seemed to creep over to the gatekeepers, policing new arrivals with the keen enthusiasm of Alsatian hounds. “You registered, mate?” injected a burly MUA member with horny hands keen to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the rotten apple from the well-sealed barrel. The question was repeated twice by ladies with worried looks — their faces creased by suspicion. Who was this interloper taking notes?

The hall was ringed by desks stacked with the appropriate, morally urgent literature (divestment, the warnings of war, the corruption wreaked upon local populations by naval and military bases). A slightly stale air of the flower revolution, spiked by tobacco and unwashed hair, was present. There were pro-Palestinian scarves, "Free West Papua" tote bags and barefoot, dreadlocked utopians who had left their boots lonely on the side of the hall. Questioners were pressed to use microphones: “We can’t hear you!”, was a frequent call.

While the Australian theme was powerful – the theme, that is, of occupation and U.S. interference – it was kept, arm-in-arm, with other states who have received the heavy imprint of U.S. power, such as South Korea and the Chagos Islands, home to the enormous Diego Garcia base. There was also a roll call list of critics of U.S. military policies. Former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam chipped in from the political perspective, as did David Vine of American University — author of that sombre study, Base Nation.

A passionate Sung-Hee Choi of South Korea – a long time, even a celebrated protester against U.S. policy in her country – spoke of brainwashing and militarisation, the scale of Washington’s bases and the complicity of Seoul in enforcing the old National Security Act against dissidents.

She warned:

“Do not believe what you see in the media. I do not want Korea to be a second Hawaii.”

Choi’s case has been particularly striking, a poster girl for non-violent resistance against naval construction on Jeju Island, specifically affecting Gangjeong Village. Such determination, which involved placing her body in front of construction equipment, proved so effective it led to state prosecutions and Choi’s imprisonment in Jeju Island prison in 2011.

Warren Smith, the MUA’s National Assistant Secretary, was punchy, determined and hopeful. His stump position has been familiar to those in union matters: unions are intrinsically linked to the peace movement. “Peace”, goes the slogan, “is union business”. But not all unions, cautions Smith, agree with this. Economics and the immediacy of the pay packet are all that matters to some. (He is careful not to mention names.)

For Smith, union politics and peace politics are webbed by the confrontation against the military complex — one that was, in turn, intimately connected to the profit motive. “The U.S. nuclear arsenal,” he reminded the audience, “is essentially privatised.”

Australia, he pressed, needed to be decoupled from the U.S. alliance system. For decades, it has become a source of grief for Australian citizens and families, propelling soldiers to feed Washington’s blood-soaked adventurism. It had also rendered Australian personnel culpable in the commission of war crimes. 

He said:

“We’re running drones out of the bush, killing kids.”

As to what pro-U.S union members would say to this? 

“I don’t care — it is wrong!”

No other presentation at this session encapsulated the U.S. purpose, its influence and its effect in Australia, more than that of scholar Vince Scappatura. Delivered with youthful confidence, he commenced by thanking the previous speakers for making his job “bloody difficult”. But he made hay of matters, delivering a competent overview of U.S. influence in Australian politics. And what influence!

The U.S., claimed Scappatura, was a clandestine empire working informally, in the shadows. Its cumulative investment in Australia had been staggering, just under $900 billion. It might all be well to worry about Chinese influence but any such efforts were dwarfed by the United States. There was just one problem: the U.S. presence was not even regarded as an interference. 

Citing an official’s comment, Scappatura quipped:

“Few Australians regard U.S. as a foreign country.”

Australian leaders, to that end, can be trusted to not merely be friendly to the U.S., but ardent devotees. U.S. largesse is directed less to convince Australian officials that the U.S. ought to be backed, but to re-enforce pre-existing sentiments. 

Mechanisms of “socialisation”, such as the U.S.-Australian leadership dialogues are designed with that purpose in mind, steadying any wobbling and turning the supporter into a flag-waving disciple. If you are not already bowing before the Stars and Stripes, do so. To that end, the exemplar is former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who rued his exclusive Asian focus on beginning to participate in such dialogues with his American friends.

Scappatura finishes in responding to questions that hope for the slimmest of hopes: that Australia’s leaders might wake up from a historical sleep, seize the independent ground, make their sovereign way. No, suggested Scappatura calmly: there was little hope in Australia’s leaders being “deprogrammed”. 

The process, in fact, was unrelentingly towards further integration, most notably with the U.S. war machine. From the dogma of interoperability of Australian defence systems with their U.S. counterparts, the future, claims former Labor leader Kim Beazley, is the "Deep State". A good thing, he suggests, on leaving his post as Australian ambassador to Washington. Australians, goes this line of flawed thinking, have nothing to worry about except, perhaps, continuing vassalage and being subcontracted to serve a global war machine.

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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