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Published in The Drum MAY 17 2012

Writing in The Australian on 12 May, “Our forces reduced to impotence”, Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, takes up the issue of defence cuts announced in the recent budget. He begins by quoting the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an organisation which lobbies on behalf of the defence industry and interests.

According to Sheridan, from the perspective of defence preparedness in the 30’s,” no nation slept more foolishly, and more dangerously, than Australia.” Sheridan quotes APSI data which claims that in 1938 Australia spent 1.55% of GDP on defence and that as a result of budget cuts Australia will spend 1.56% on defence in 2012/13.

In his budget in reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, drew upon the 1938 analogy; an analogy singularly devious in its application. In 1938 Australian wealth had increased significantly from the private loses and government cuts occasioned by the Great Depression of 1929. The economy started to recover in 1932, in that year unemployment stood at 23%, amongst the highest in the world, by 1939 it stood at 11%.

Government spending in areas like defence was cut in the early 1930’s, by 1937/38 it was being restored, but lagged behind the overall growth in wealth. In that year Australia had a population of 6.9 million people with a militia of 43,000 men. Australian historian Gavin Long in, “The Six Year War”, says that in 1933, “The purchase of a cruiser, the building of smaller vessels in Australian yards and the rearming of coastal batteries were authorised…Other large-scale metal-working industries capable of conversion to the making of weapons of war, had been established…Essington Lewis, Managing Director of Broken Hill Pty Ltd, after a world tour in 1934, was convinced that steps should be taken to prepare Australia for war. Plans were put in hand to extend plant, improve efficiency and make new kinds of steel.”

From 1934 to 1937 defence expenditure in Australia doubled to about 9% of Federal revenue. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1936. Some 9,000 workers were employed in government munitions and aircraft factories by 1939. A three year defence spending program was announced by Prime Minister Lyons in August 1937 and greatly increased in April 1938, after the German annexation of Austria in March. Following the Munich crisis in September 1938 Australia increased by half the defence allocations of April. The problem now was to spend the money. By April 1939 there were 70,000 men in the militia, from the ranks of whom were drawn the 6th and 7th Divisions of the AIF. War was declared on 3 September 1939. The 6th Division sailed overseas on 10 January 1940.

Paul Hasluck in, “The Government and the people 1939 – 1941”, says that there was a steady rise in defence expenditure from 1933 and by the 1936-37 budget it had reached pre-depression figures. Hasluck notes that faced with a rapidly deteriorating international situation, Australia undertook the mammoth task of getting its defence forces up to speed after the debilitating effect of the depression. The state of Australian infrastructure and industry, struggling, with the best will in the world, to get up to speed, meant that the defence budget was chronically underspent.

Hasluck writes that, “It was true that the 1938-39 figure was nearly twice as much as Australia had ever spent in a single year and four times as much as she had been spending five years earlier, but it was a tiny proportion of the nation’s resources and the dangers were great and so immediate.

Perhaps more than anything else the modesty of the defence proposals at this period was due to a defect, not of the will but of the imagination.”

The same might be said of those charged with shaping defence policy and procurement for Australia over the past fifty years. Forget the white papers and rhetoric, Australia has shaped its defence policy to be compatible with US foreign, strategic and defence policy and US force structures, from Abrams tanks, to air warfare destroyers, to submarines and fighter aircraft ,all are designed to be compatible with US forces when we operate beside them in whatever theatre of conflict and war that the US deems essential to the survival of democracy and the western way of life – and for that read US interests. From Vietnam, to the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan we have lined up with the US on the basis of our alliance and our so called shared common values.

The alliance is predicated on common objectives in WWII, where Australia was a vital base for the re-taking of the Pacific from the Japanese and subsequently morphed into political dogma that the US will come to our assistance should our fundamental interests be threatened again, if we nurture the alliance.

However to date it has been Australia that has run after the US and bent over backwards to do them favours. This is a country with which we have a substantially unequal trade agreement; negotiated under Howard on their terms. This is a country that competes with Australia in the export of wheat and has quotas on the importation of Australian beef and lamb. The US has no major industrial enterprise in this country, yet wants us to accept waste uranium. This is a country that wants us to line up against China in a forward defence strategy that will see Darwin become a base for US marines, naval assets and aircraft, including B52’s capable of bombing Chinese submarine bases. It proposes basing submarines in WA at Garden Island and drones on Cocos Island.

On behalf of the US, Australia positioned Oberon Class submarines off Valdivostok to carry out surveillance of Soviet fleet movements. So pleased were they with Australian efforts that in response to US offers of increased co-operation if these activities were continued, if not enhanced, that Australia built a hybrid submarine not suited to operate in the archipelagic waters of our north and really not suited to being a submarine. We have built air warfare destroyers to be an integral part of a US force structure, but to be of use to Australia in an independent role they will need to be reconfigured. And so it goes. By the time we get the F35 it will be way over budget and out of date.

Who are our enemies at the present time and who are likely to be our enemies in the future? The enemies of the US should not automatically be our enemies. A point forcefully made to the new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, at talks with the Chinese on 14 May. Sheridan hints in his article that the Chinese might be our enemy; they will be if it is left to the US, but this need not be. Our defence, should be just that – OUR defence, relying as much on diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange as weapons of war. Australia must identify its own vital interests and develop the means to protect those interests using all means available to us.

On this basis Sheridan’s analysis carries no weight. We have overspent on inappropriate items of equipment to please the US and because we have not developed a register of our interests and how best to maintain and protect them within the range of our considerable resources both human and technical. Sheridan has been lazy in accepting ASPI and defence analyst Ross Babbage as his sources. A little work on his own account would show that Australian defence spending at 1.55% of GDP is in company with Germany at 1.34%, Italy, 1.40%, Spain, 1.05%, Sweden, 1.23% and Finland, 1.50%.

With an independent and tough minded analysis of Australia’s defence requirements,post Afghanistan, and at some distance from the bullying of the US, we might find that we can do more with less, once we establish what it is we need to do to co-exist, foster and protect our interests within the region.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, author and retired diplomat.

Published in The Drum MAY 9 and Canberra Times 14 MAY 2012

Ali Al Jenabi is a survivor; he is resourceful, and compassionate. He takes his responsibilities to others seriously, particularly toward his family which is central to his existence. These responsibilities have cost him dearly. He has lost his wife and child and the only woman he loved. I have met Ali on several occasions, once in Villawood with my wife, he is a good person.

In 1991 aged twenty, Ali, his father and eighteen year old brother Ahmed were picked up by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, thrown into the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and tortured. Put before his bleeding brother whose hands are nailed to a table, they say each time he does not answer a question they will take another finger off. It is then that he notices that his brothers little finger has already been chopped off. Ali is asked what political group he belongs to. Saying he knows nothing of political groups, Saddam’s thugs chop another finger off the hand of his brother.

Ali never sees Ahmed again. He and his father are eventually released, but his father is a broken man, so much so, that Ali must assume responsibility for the family, his mother and six brothers and sisters. His need to provide for the family has him working long hours. When a younger brother falls down a well and drowns it is Ali who must retrieve the body. Two other brothers are detained in prison.

Eventually it becomes apparent that the family will have to leave Iraq and it is Ali who must put himself in the hands of people smugglers, first to get into semi autonomous Kurdistan, then Iran, later Turkey, in an attempt to get to Europe, and then Malaysia and Indonesia to try to get them to Australia. Lack of money and dishonest operatives in the informal transport network push Ali into the so called people smuggling business, where he manages to get ten members of his immediate family to Australia plus another five hundred persecuted and deserving souls.

All this and a lot more is contained in a tight, powerful and extraordinarily well written book, “The People Smuggler “, by author and film maker Robin De Crespigny. It might have been called ‘The Enabler’ or ‘A Compassionate Man’. This is a book which highlights the provincialism, the meanness, fear and naval gazing of the Australian ruling class. It is a book which glories in the strength, courage and compassion of the human spirit. It is a book which says as much about Australia as it does about Iraq. It is being launched at the writers’ festival in Sydney on 17 May.

Ali is eventually ‘captured’ by an AFP entrapment scheme in Thailand, in April 2002, which sees their Iraqi informer, residing in Indonesia, eventually given $250,000 and permanent residency in Australia. The informer was involved in the departure of SIEVX, which again raises questions about the knowledge and involvement of the AFP with the ill fated voyage of that vessel. We also get an insight into the murky world of corrupt police, navy, customs and other officials, in which the AFP and people smugglers operate in Indonesia.

From the time of his apprehension and detention in Australia Ali’s story is one of unspeakable cruelty. He is not physically tortured but he is, psychologically and emotionally, all in the name of making an example of a people smuggler.

Taken through the court system in Darwin, for a ‘crime’ that does not exist in Indonesia, where it was ‘committed’, Ali was sentenced by a sympathetic judge, which could have been ten years, but when boiled down amounted to one year and nine months. The Judge, His Honour, Justice Mildren said, “As to the prospects of rehabilitation, I doubt if he will offend again when he is released. I accept that he has a remarkably stoic and positive outlook on life and will probably pursue his trade as a tailor.” During the course of this trial it is determined and accepted by the prosecution that there is no such thing as a queue of, or for, asylum seekers.

Upon release from prison at the end of his sentence, Department of Immigration officials are waiting for him. One tries to get him to sign a form which will see him immediately deported to Iraq, the other takes him aside, spelling out his right to request asylum, which he does. His case is heard and nothing is done for nearly a year, although under Australian law a decision must be given within 90 days. The matter is brought before the Federal Court and a Judge orders the Department of Immigration to hand over relevant documents, amongst which is a recommendation, by the case officer Kate Watson, that Ali be granted refugee status. The Department, presumably at government direction, have sought to pervert the course of justice with respect to Ali’s legitimate claim. They also made life hell for Kate. Nice people.

The matter went to the Minister, Chris Evans, for a decision, who instead of issuing a permanent visa issued a Removal Pending Bridging Visa. Later the new Minister, Chris Bowen, endorsed this decision, which is still in force. It meant that he could not be joined by his Indonesian wife and child, who has since divorced him, and subsequent to that by a childhood sweetheart from Iraq, who, in the absence of his being able to travel to see her, was pushed into a loveless marriage by her family. It has also meant that Ali cannot work.

Evans and Bowen could have made a difference but spooked by Abbott and Scott Morrison, they threw what little moral courage and decency they have to the wind. Morrison is an interesting study in parochialism and political opportunism. His experience of life is limited, he is as sharp as a tack and twice as flat headed. He has never been confronted with the harsh realities of life, much like Abbott, Rudd, Howard, Bowen and Gillard. He and they, have no experience of war and the human suffering that attends it.

Weak people make tough decisions, usually to protect themselves. Without fear of contradiction, none of the current political leadership has ever been faced with, or been in a position where terrified and pleading individuals sought assistance, protection and succour. They have never seen people released from prison beaten black and blue and reeking of fear. Yet they act as if they have. They crave respect; an impossibility, except from sycophants and rent seekers.

The threat to Australia is not from terrorism but from the fear of it, an irrational fear, which has led to the demonization of so called people smugglers and boat people. On this issue both sides of politics play to the lowest common political denominator. Why? Is it xenophobia, racism or both? The number of people coming by boat is insignificant; they do not have the money to come by plane and as the book shows, the majority have made exemplary citizens, in most cases better than their irrational critics.

Bowen, Morrison, Abbott, Pell, Jensen, Howard, Rudd and Gillard should read this book. It will give them an understanding into real compassion, commitment, humanity and loyalty and maybe then they will become advocates for Ali and others who carry his cross. Howard famously said, in spite of Australian law and UN Conventions which Australia signed, that he would decide who came to Australia and when. Provincial arrogance, the world is a far more complex environment than Howard was able to grasp.

Rudd infamously and immaturely said, “People smugglers are the vilest form of human life, they trade on the tragedy of others, and that is why they should rot in jail and, in my own view, rot in hell.” Whatever it took, but it didn’t work to keep Rudd and nor will it work for Gillard.

Some people smugglers, like some politicians are bad and some are good. They exist because of need. The source of the problem lies in the home countries of refugees. People do not leave home on a whim; they do not put themselves in danger for a better job. Vanstone and Ruddock, on ABC JJJ the other night, were prepared to trot out the same old gutless platitudes to protect their past flawed decisions. They had not read the book. I suggest they do before making fools of themselves, yet again, in the public domain.

Ali will get there sooner than later with friends like Robin De Crespigny, Ngareta Rossell, Steven Blanks, John and Trish Highfield, Sister Aileen Crow and the thousands of others who will now join with him as a result of the book, the likes of which I have not read for a long time.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former diplomat and retired people smuggler. He was in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union. He has been involved with refugees since his first posting to Pakistan in 1972, until his last in Sri Lanka in 1994. From 1995 to 2000 he was a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. His experience is that DFAT, Immigration and other Commonwealth departments do not give a Tinkers Cuss about refugees. Bruce helped many people escape from apartheid South Africa. He believes, there but for the grace of God go I.

Published in On Line Opinion 2 MAY 2012

There has been recent discussion in the media that troops wounded in Afghanistan have received the short end of the stick in follow-up treatment provided or organised by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Around thirty years ago Vet Affairs began morphing into a caretaker of the nations’ memory and remembrance of war. It first appeared with the dwindling number of First World War veterans and the belated fuss the Hawke government made of them. Vet Affairs were given the task of organising the travel and accommodation for these often frail but spirited veterans to Turkey, France and Belgium. They also provided spritely carers to accompany them.

As part of this remit Vet Affairs produced short histories on the battle sites to be visited and biographies on the travelling WWI Diggers. Ten years on and the focus shifted to surviving WW11 Diggers. Ceremonies and tours arranged for this group became caught up and interwoven with Howard’s jingoism and skewed sense of nationalism, which eschewed black arm band history and promoted the importance of Australian military history as the primary force in shaping the character of the nation. He, and those around him, saw Australian involvement in war as central to the history of the British Empire and in particular to that of Australia and New Zealand (the Anzacs).

A, by now, politicised Department of Veterans Affairs was willing to be co-opted into expanding their charter to take on the promotion of Australian military history and achievements. Pamphlets expanded into booklets and then into books, tapes, CD’s and DVD’s. Today Vet Affairs organises and runs the sound and light shows at major Australian memorials around the world, including the iconic memorials at Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux.

I went to France in 2010 to attend the re-internment of Diggers on the 19 July at the newly constructed and consecrated Pheasant Wood, Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, located near the village of Fromelles. The event attracted what I thought were a disproportionate number of officers from Vet Affairs.

Later in the month I found myself in the Somme Valley just outside the village of Hamel, on an eastern ridge topped by a memorial to General Monash and the soldiers of the AIF who took the town on 4 July 1918 in the first of a series of resounding victories down the Valley. There was a person who appeared very interested in the memorial and upon introduction turned out to be an officer from Vet Affairs charged with examining the monument for wear and tear.

I said to him that I had little contact with Vet Affairs, although I would like to, as being a former tank gunner I wanted my ears tested. He seemed a little taken aback, but swung into a line perhaps developed from other similar exchanges. He said he was from a different area of Vet Affairs – his area didn’t handle medical matters.

When eventually I did get through to an area of Vet Affairs handling medical matters, I gave my details and was told to ring back, which in itself was a difficult and frustrating experience. People skills appear not to be a strong point of Vet Affairs personnel dealing with vets. Anyway I drew a blank, as on my discharge form, the lady said, problems with my hearing had not been recorded. I said perhaps my ears, being unprotected during firing of the gun, might have suffered and deteriorated over time. No such luck, nothing was recorded on the discharge form therefore there was not a problem with which Vet Affairs might assist.

A year or so later I received a letter from Vet Affairs saying they were coming to the Central West, including Mudgee, and if I had something I wanted to discuss I should make an appointment. A number was provided and getting to talk to the named officer proved every bit as difficult as the earlier experience.

The appointment was made. A number of other vets living in Mudgee did likewise. The visit was cancelled by letter two weeks before it was due to take place. We were advised to ring a certain number and make an appointment in Sydney. For a number of vets, for a variety of reasons, that was not an option.

I am well aware of what Vet Affairs is capable of doing. My father was a WWII veteran with entitlements as a result of his service and after his death my mother received those same benefits.

I am a former National Serviceman (1966/68), should my unit have been posted to Vietnam I would have gone without complaint. After some time it did not appear that it would go so I volunteered for Vietnam and became an M113 Driver. Due to the Army stuffing around my time ran out, six clear months were needed for service in Vietnam. The Army said sign on for another six months, but whilst in the Army I had studied for my mature age matriculation and I had been accepted to commence studies at UWA in March 1968, not an opportunity I wanted to pass up having waited (messed around) for so long. And yes The Department of National Service provided $40 a week for my first year of study – more than the basic wage.

The National Servicemen of the second scheme (1965-72) were called up by Menzies for service in Vietnam. They did not ask to be called up, but for the vast majority, on finding themselves in the Army, they put their shoulder to the wheel and proved to be every bit as good as the regular soldiers.

A little respect for their service might be shown by Vet Affairs in at least considering whatever claims they put forward in a positive and reasonable manner.

In my opinion Vet Affairs should be made to concentrate solely on the welfare of surviving vets and ex-service personnel. They should be forced to abandon their proselytizing and promotion of the Anzac legend. As far as government expenditure on recording and honouring the history of Australian involvement in war I believe that should be the sole preserve of the Australian War Memorial (AWM).

A Department charged with the welfare of former servicemen and women should not be also running events, at great cost, and flying (how many?) let’s say at least dozens of senior officers around the world for weeks at a time. The events branches of the Department of Veterans Affairs should be split off from the department and given to the more highly skilled and sober AWM. Vet Affairs should also cease the interpretation of our military history. At the moment they are providing the sugar coated version.

The Minister of Veterans Affairs, Warren Snowdon, should provide a list of his officers who attended Anzac Day Ceremonies in Turkey, France, Belgium and elsewhere around the globe and the cost to the Australian tax payer.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former national serviceman. After service in WW1 his grandfather was the honorary secretary of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen Association of Victoria.