Lessons from a kiap in old Bougainville
Science meets oral history at Orokolo Bay

General alarm: Militarism is Australia’s new norm

Lieutenant General John Frewen
Lieutenant General John Frewen was recently appointed as Coordinator General of the newly announced 'Operation Covid Shield'

| Pearls & Irritations

SYDNEY - What a reflection this is on the standing of the Australian Public Service and the Morrison governments lack of interest in a robust and well- functioning civil society. We invariably turn to the military.

The Morrison government passed the buck to the states for Covid quarantine despite the fact that quarantine is a clear Commonwealth responsibility and has been so since Federation.

With their skill and experience in delivering services, the States did well in quarantine despite the Commonwealth government’s abdication of responsibility and unwillingness to establish stand-alone and remote quarantine facilities.

Concerned that the states were getting the political kudos for handling quarantine, the Morrison government determined that it was going to lead the way in the rollout of vaccines. 

But we know now that the rollout has been seriously bungled.  So the government appointed Lieutenant General John Frewen to try to retrieve the vaccine rollout confusion.

Instead of facing up to the debasing of the Australian Public Service through outsourcing and underfunding, the government lets the it languish and then turns to the military.

As Professor Lesley Seebeck of the Australian National University put it recently, “It’s worrying when the government, under pressure, almost reflexively reaches for a military officer to help resolve messy, complex and conflicted policy matters-matters that are inherently political in nature.”

Public occasions are invariably backgrounded by numerous flags with military uniforms on display.

Our poorly funded fire fighters now have to call on the military.

We have a government boasting that it has plans for Australia to become one of the world’s top 10 arms suppliers. We are to export more military equipment to kill and maim.

This is at the same time as we have announced dramatic cuts in our humanitarian aid program that saves lives.

Our allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates welcome our support as they inflict terrible suffering on the people of Yemen. A retired Australian general served the UAE military.

When we arrive at our airports we see the Australian Border Force decked out in military-style black uniforms. They intentionally look part of the Australian Defence Force instead of Customs and Immigration officers.

There is clearly a message being conveyed. We need to act more like the military. The secretary of the Department of Home Affairs beats the drums for war over Taiwan.

The government runs many scare campaigns not just about the China threat but in recent years about ‘illegal’ asylum seekers and terrorists. The language is clear: we are at war with asylum seekers in their rickety boats.

Scott Morrison described Operation Sovereign Borders, run by the Navy, as a “military-led border security operation”. He added that the battle against people-smugglers “is being fought using the full arsenal of measures”.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton tells us that a military look-alike called Border Force is more important than ever.

Many of us had hoped that, at last, we were putting to an end the appointment of the Australian military as vice-regal representatives in Australia. But we are backtracking on that with the two latest Governors-General being army generals. The military is the norm.

Our aid programs have been progressively militarised. AidWatch has reported that our “military forces manipulate humanitarian aid in order to achieve tactical and political objectives.

“While the military can play an important role in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian crisis, researchers have found that militarised aid is not effective and can cause harm to local communities and aid workers.”

The militarisation of Australia and our conditioning was most evident in the extravagant celebration of the centenary of the Gallipoli invasion and World War I.

The Australian War Memorial orchestrated a well-funded campaign across the country, including schools, to depict World War I as the starting point of our history, our coming of age. Our media loved it.

The War Memorial celebrates war by accepting generous funding from arms suppliers, the ‘agents of death’ as Pope Francis calls them.

It is grotesque that the War Memorial accepts money and sponsorship from arms suppliers. The agents of death are well and truly within the citadel. They even fund the Invictus Games, the same people that produce the weapons to maim and kill. Don’t we care?

And then the government agrees, with the complicity of the Labor Party, to fund another $500 million for an ego trip of a former director of the War Memorial, Brendan Nelson.

There was widespread civil opposition to this, but that was all pushed aside. The military view won out.

Our foreign policy has now become subjected to our military dependence on the United States. We are at the beck and call of the US military, regardless of our own interests.

With interoperability of equipment and personnel we are locked into the US war machine and we are dragooned time and time again into its military disasters– Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Australia has ceded its sovereignty to the US government and its controlling military elites.

There is great danger that the militarisation of Australian history and our ready acceptance of the military as the accepted norm will lead us to more and more tragedy.

We used to believe that committing our country to war was the most serious thing that any government could ever do. That is no more.

We go to war without even the Australian parliament being consulted. And the Labor Party concurs.

Professor Henry Reynolds in an article, Militarism marches on, warned us:

“The threshold Australian governments need to cross in order to send forces overseas is perilously low.

“Because there has never been an assessment of why Australia has been so often involved in war, young people must get the impression that war is a natural and inescapable part of national life. It is what we do and we are good at it.

“We ‘punch above our weight’. War is treated as though it provides the venue and the occasion for Australian heroism and martial virtuosity.

“While there is much talk of dying, or more commonly of sacrifice, there is little mention of killing and never any assessment of the carnage visited on distant countries in our name.”

Blink and we miss another military festival in Australia. Are there so few civic achievements to be proud of?

Militarism is becoming more and more pervasive. We have been sleep-walking in dangerous territory, ever since the Frontier Wars which we try and hide from view.

We avoid the truth about our military today by telling ourselves that war crimes are due to a few bad apples.

Military commanders tell us they did not know about war crimes in Afghanistan. But why did they not know? We need a Royal Commission to find out.

Militarism has become an increasingly dangerous norm. We need a civil revival.


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Bernard Corden

Here is a link to a perspective on Covid-1984 from AN Wilson in a recent edition of The Spectator:


It attracted an equally interesting response entitled 'No Way to Die" from the Rev Dr D Ben Rees:


Chris Overland

While I think the tone of John Menadue's piece is slightly overwrought, I do think he has a point, at least as it relates to the government's dismal performance in relation to the vaccine roll out.

As the Delta variant of Covid-19 spreads in Sydney, we may be about to reap the reward for the government's apparent inability to organise an effective national quarantine and vaccination program.

Having survived thus far largely unscathed, another wave of this appalling disease would be proof that prime minister Morrison's airy assertion that the vaccination program "is not a race" was not only more of his marketing rhetoric but also totally wrong.

So, enter the military. It is the only Federal organisation with the necessary know how and resources to manage the logistics of rapidly distributing vaccine across the country.

The Federal health bureaucracy lacks the program management knowledge and expertise to do this, as well as the being bereft of the necessary resources.

As John points out, this is the long term consequence of 'dumbing down' the Federal public service which has been an objective of successive conservative governments.

Congratulations to them: it worked. It is just a pity that their mates in private industry have been unable to deliver when in matters.

At the state level, the boring necessity to actually deliver services to the punters has meant that the dumbing down process has been less severe but even then a rapid build up of resources has been needed to try to manage the consequences of the pandemic.

The true value of public services is very frequently only appreciated in their absence. Ask any Papua New Guinean about what the lack of an adequate health or education system means for them and, more importantly, their children.

Australian conservatives have, far too often, been resolutely stupid in pursuing the neo-liberal economic agenda in the utterly mistaken belief that 'the market' will always deliver the optimum outcomes. This is egregious bull shit of course, but it remains their mantra.

As long as we persist with a weakened and degraded public sector, as PNG is obliged to endure, we can reasonably expect the same sorts of outcomes.

In the meantime, we must accept that our military will remain the last line of defence against the mendacity and sheer incompetence of a Federal government that is not fit for purpose any longer.

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