Joining an arms race without winners

By Gordon Preece

February 5 2018Australia’s peaceful summer holidays were recently disturbed by a government bombshell — we plan to join the global arms race. The amorally framed announcement was justified purely financially. Australia aims to become a top ten global arms producer and dealer.

In 2018 Australia exports around $2 billion worth of high-tech defence armaments, compared to the UK’s $10 billion. A new financing facility of $3.8 billion will help our defence companies increase exports. Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne crowed that we will only sell to countries with impeccable human rights records. However this is clearly contradicted by our openness to sell in volatile areas like the Middle East and Asia. Who in the Middle East has a good human rights record? And how do we justify adding our arms to an area undergoing the near total destruction of Syria, and now the  humanitarian crisis of Yemen, at the hands of our Saudi “allies”?

Sticking momentarily to the financial rationale, this seems like a Liberal Party adoption of what it often critiques as the Labor approach to “picking winners”. Perhaps that’s why Labor was quick, in the interests of bipartisan barbarianism, to support the move. Yes, this might be a financial winner in the short-term — war is a massive growth industry. But it will be no winner in any other way, humanitarian, ecological, security-wise, in the long term.

Add the fact that this multi-million dollar loan scheme merely complements the $200 billion defence budget over the next decade, and it is little wonder that aid and development agencies, many of them Christian, reacted critically to the announcement. The government is transferring money from alms to arms, from human welfare to warfare, from soft power and diplomacy to brittle, easily broken hard power. Weapons proliferation inevitably causes greater instability, death and destruction. Modern weapons rarely sit idle as if in hunters’ trophy cabinets.

Even on a narrow view of security this mercenary move is unjustifiable, as military arms are notorious for ending up in the arms of one’s enemies. Also remember the notorious Australian Wheat Board fiasco with its gun-toting chairman, paying massive bribes to Iraqis while our soldiers risked their lives fighting them. Lack of transparency and partial exemption from Freedom of Information legislation and a paucity of ecological and social risk evaluations compounds the problem. Plus contract approval is dangerously at the sole discretion of the Trade Minister, as increasingly so in Immigration and Border Control.

This ill-advised decision reinforces our Fortress Australia mentality and increasing militarisation of Australian politics, policing and corrections, immigration and refugee policies, and public squares. A wider, wiser view of security focuses on good relations with neighbours, and prevention concerning our primary security problem, climate change, even recognised by the Pentagon.

Further, global arms controls are critical. Compare the noise the government has made about this arms announcement with the almost complete and indecent silence with which it greeted ICAN’s 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was signed by 122 nations, but not Australia. Surely the government has its priorities upside down. It risks making Australia a global pariah rather than an exemplary global citizen.

Former US General and President Eisenhower spoke memorably of “the military industrial complex”. But as a military man he knew too that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed… cold and not clothed”. To reverse the biblical imagery, we are turning ploughshares into swords. Australia is currently giving its lowest percentage of GDP to foreign aid since World War II, for food, health and education for children and others.

The value of the global arms trade is approaching US$100 billion annually, but it is probably higher. And this is merely its direct, official costs. The costs of developing nations being deeply indebted, lives lost, and environments destroyed, are unquantifiable.  The opportunity costs of what this money could do, targeted not at killing people, but at healing and enabling their and creation’s flourishing, is mind-blowing.

With Dr Bruce Duncan of Social Policy Connections, we recognise that “Australia’s government has a responsibility and duty to procure adequate defence, especially when technological advances result in extraordinary new weapons systems… highly automated, with artificial intelligence capabilities”, without direct human control. But “how do we avoid being caught up in a race to stay ahead with the latest and most sophisticated weapons?” Australia is blindly training for an arms race in which there are no winners and the costs are catastrophic.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece is chair of the Diocese of Melbourne’s Social Responsibilities Committee (SRC); minister at Yarraville Anglican Parish; Director of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, University of Divinity and Director of www.ethos.org.au. The SRC will lead Anglicans for Refugees at the Palm Sunday rally, meeting at Mr Tulk café, La Trobe Street side of State Library at 1.45 pm on Sunday 25 March, 2018.