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On the military-industrial
complex in Australia


Jake Lynch*

October 6, 2008

Australia’s new Labor government hit the ground reviewing. A swag of initiatives – the historic apology to Aboriginal people, scrapping the previous government’s workplace laws, signing up to Kyoto – were implemented straight away, having been long in the gestation. The rest is still, to some extent, up for grabs.

So we’re all now being given the chance to have our say. How should Australia spend its military budget, and for what purpose? How should we relate to the Association of South East Asian Nations? Key planks of foreign and defence policy are being opened up for public consultation, with hearings on the new Defence White Paper touring all the state capitals.

It might betoken a touching faith in the value of dialogue: our ability, as Australians – as human beings – to exchange firmly founded opinions and, in the process, fashion for ourselves a shared sense of what is right and appropriate. Academics call this idea ‘the public sphere’, and the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, who wrote about it, proposed that ‘communicative rationality’ was one of our innate human qualities. His notion of ‘Lifeworld’ took on real dimensions in the coffee shops of Enlightenment Europe, where our modern habit of weighing the evidence, and forming our opinions accordingly, was born.

According to Habermas, however, the story of modernity is of the ‘structural transformation’ of the public sphere, with increasing complexity and specialisation as we erected vast, often impersonal ‘systems’ for addressing, forming and wielding public opinion. This was characterised, he said, by ‘instrumental rationality’ – pre-judging issues by creating and selectively presenting the evidence, in pursuit of ‘egocentric calculations of utility’. This is why government officials, for instance, may approach their work and their responsibilities in all sincerity, trying to do what they believe is right – and yet find their scope circumscribed by the conventions and sheer inertia built in to the system.  

And there’s more than a whiff of the system-lifeworld conundrum in the Defence hearings, chaired, as they are, by Stephen Loosley, who was recently appointed to the board of Thales Australia, making him, er… an arms dealer. The Government has, moreover, pre-judged one of the central issues by committing itself, in advance, to a three percent annual real-terms increase in military spending.

This is what former US President Eisenhower referred to as ‘the military-industrial complex’. Countries face security threats, then take sensible precautions to arm themselves, in order to protect against those threats, right? Not always. System logic sometimes leads them to invent or exaggerate threats, in order to justify spending decisions they want to make – to reward companies whose campaign contributions put politicians into their Washington offices, say.

In the US, indeed, this has become plain silly, with the latest innovation – ‘spiral development accounting’ – exempting the multi-billion dollar missile defence program from having to show results, or even specify, at the outset, what results it is seeking to achieve. On a smaller scale, Australia’s Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, told the National Press Club a few weeks ago that we now face ‘an increasingly uncertain security environment’.

Really? The Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University, Canada finds the world becoming, on one important measure, a safer place. The number of armed conflicts fell, between 1994 and 2005, by fully 40%. The number of deaths from organized violence has also decreased dramatically, since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s annual survey of global military spending reveals that the total cost of arms has remorselessly risen, up over the same period by 37%, over and above inflation.  

If Labor are convinced that we are facing a growing threat, then Ministers have some explaining to do. One of those advising on the White Paper is Professor Ross Babbage, a former Defence official (and arms dealer) who recently raised the spectre of invasion by India or China – unrealistic now, but with the uncomfortable feeling that, if built into our framework of assumptions, it could eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit like the Russians threatening to target missile defence installations in Poland, for that matter.

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At the same time, in Canberra, there’s life in the ‘lifeworld’ yet. Michael Smith, the former deputy commander of the UN mission to East Timor, who then headed up Austcare, is now to take charge of the new Asia-Pacific Centre for Civil-Military Cooperation. The brainchild of Colonel Mike Kelly, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, its brief will be to ‘streamline coordination between security, economic, emergency management, institution-building and non-government organisations to help avoid continuing instability and revolving-door military deployments’.

Australians who work in conflict zones are ‘selfless and dedicated’, Smith told a conference we organized at CPACS, earlier this year, but they now need ‘new thinking’ to succeed. And, unlike the Pentagon with its missile shield, he ventured a bold and highly demanding definition of success: ‘that civil society is established, or re-established, in a peaceful, just and sustainable manner that empowers people to bring themselves out of poverty’.

This is a mission the Australian people would unequivocally approve of, as Ministers would hear if they were really listening. The other long-prepared move, as the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, took office, was to pull the Diggers back from the frontline in Iraq, of course, and public opinion is evenly split over the continuing military commitment to Afghanistan. So please, let’s not waste money on expensive war-fighting kit we don’t want and don’t need, whether manufactured by Thales or anyone else. Let’s concentrate, instead, on addressing the real causes of conflict, and help to bring peace with justice to our own region. Coffee, anyone?

* Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.


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