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Published in ON LINE OPINION 25 February 2013

Australia was founded as a penal colony by Great Britain two hundred and twenty five years ago. There were no expectations on the part of colonial Britain that it would ever amount to much more. However, enterprise and greed, on the part of administrators, soldiers and released convicts saw commercial activity and farming gradually established; all at the expense of the original Aboriginal inhabitants who not unnaturally saw the move to permanent settlement as an invasion.

There was no concept of civil liberties relating to the Aboriginals and the convicts. Industrialisation in Britain saw social upheaval within a class structured society; the acquisition of wealth was a means of moving upwards in the structure. As the colonies began to prosper, some viewed migration to them as an easier way to gain wealth and status, others as the only way to escape poverty.

Wealth bestowed certain rights to the new elite in the Australian colonies, but that was the extent of civil liberties. Some cite the gold rushes as bringing people, mainly men, to Australian with a more independent outlook and a notion of the ‘rights of man’. They cite armed protest on the Victorian gold fields in December 1854, known as the Eureka Stockade, as proof of this and Republicans in Australia employ the symbolism of the event and the flag used by the protesters, as a prop in their campaign. However the uprising, as it romantically referred to, was a protest of frustration at the imposition of mining licence fees and police harassment involved with the collection of these fees.

White miners killed and injured Chinese miners, most seriously at Lambing Flat near Young in NSW but also on gold fields in Victoria. There was no notion of civil liberties relating to the persecuted Chinese, on the contrary fear over the loss of white jobs led to The White Australia Policy, in force from the 1880’s to the 1960’s.

Cheap Labour was introduced to Queensland sugar fields from men forcibly abducted from the Pacific Islands in the 1880’s. There was no protest from politicians, the public or the papers.

Civil Liberties, as we know them today, came through the Union Movement, which found expression through a number of strikes at the end of the 1880’s and early 1890’s, including a general maritime and shearers strike. It was from the union movement that the Labor Party was formed. But both the movement and the party supported White Australia.

The Bulletin Magazine fostered notions of nationalism and equality, the latter being driven by a desire for a better distribution of wealth. Hughes split the Labor Party and the nation with the debate over conscription for WWI, which he twice tried to introduce on 1916 and 1917. The attempt to introduce had nothing to do with the notion of civil liberty, although some argue that opposition did.

Contribution to WWI did not contribute to civil liberties and the notion of mateship did not extend to giving Aboriginal people equal rights including the vote. The Great Depression and the Australian response of working for the dole on made up projects did not contribute to civil liberties.

Prime Minister Menzies, in a deceitful sleight of hand, introduced conscription by ballot for service in Vietnam in 1964. That, together with Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam, once again tore the social fabric of Australia.

Free universal state funded education in all states did however contribute substantially to civil liberties as did giving women the vote, although it did not and has still not contributed to equality in the work place or indeed in some areas of Australian society. Australia is nominally a secular society but religion has been allowed to dominate debate and the practice of equality for women again in certain sectors of Australian society and in certain religions including Catholic and amongst some Muslims.

Aboriginal people have still not been empowered to take control of their own affairs. White paternalism dominates policy and debate within both the major parties, not much in the way of civil liberties there.

Compared to twenty five years ago Australia has gone backward in its treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Some have been imprisoned for two to three years. Howard government offshore processing has been re-introduced by a Labor Party in government, which once prided itself on its human rights and civil liberties credentials.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert Carr, acting to close off avenues of escape for persecuted Tamils from Sri Lanka has entered into the most unholy of alliances with the corrupt Rajapaksa regime to disrupt the boat traffic in asylum seekers. Perhaps we should not be surprised as this is the self regarding politician who mounted strange arguments against an Australian Bill of Rights, for reasons difficult to understand.

Unless we can protect the weakest among us and those seeking our protection we cannot claim to be a state which has a strong notion of civil liberties.

The fact remains however that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights and while it does not transgressions against the fundamental rights of individuals are made easier than if such a bill were in existence; the lives of Assange, Habib, Hicks, Haneef and Zygier might have had different outcomes. Once informed an organisation like ASIO might be compelled to inform relevant agencies of the detention of an Australian irrespective of real or perceived security concerns.

To secure and maintain the civil liberties inherited under our adoption of the Westminster system of government and the basic tenets of English law, Australians must rely on the court system interpreting a tangled web of now often contradictory laws that back our limited and fragile civil liberties.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.


On 26 November, 2012, The Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, announced a Judicial Inquiry into cases of abuse within the Australian Defence Force from the 1950’s through to the present day. The single act of introducing Conscription, by limited ballot, of young men into the Australian Army, in the years 1965 to 1972, for military service overseas in a war zone, constitutes one of the graver acts of abuse and bullying of Australian citizens in recent history. The Judicial Inquiry should look at the ethics, effect, equity and justice of Conscription. It was an abuse of power and of people; redress and an apology are required to right the wrong that was committed.

Australia twice voted against the introduction of conscription during WWI. Conscripts fought in Papua, in WWII, because it was an Australian territory; they fought with great distinction on the Kokoda Track, stopping the Japanese just short of Port Moresby and getting abused by the head of the army, General Blamey, for their trouble.

Conscription, or National Service, as it was euphemistically called, was introduced in 1965 to provide a pool of trained young men for military service in Vietnam. Australia had a professional army of volunteers, but after the decision was made to go to war with the United States in Vietnam, concern was expressed within a small and restricted circle of government, that volunteers might not come forward in sufficient numbers to man an expanded army in a commitment of unknown duration and intensity.

The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced the introduction of Conscription on 10 November 1964; the necessary amendments to the Defence Act were made on 6 April 1965. Menzies announced the commitment of 1 RAR, a battalion of regular soldiers, to Vietnam the next day. He gave no indication that he intended to send the first of the Conscripts when their training was completed at the end of 1965.

In citing the need for a limited ballot to draft twenty year old males into the army for two years, Menzies referred vaguely to the growing communist threat from the north and the need for Australia to be prepared to meet any sudden threat quickly.

There was also a hint that Indonesia might again threaten regional security. However it seems that Menzies knew exactly why he wanted a bigger army; he had given secret undertakings to the US that Australia would be prepared to give legitimacy, through provision of Australian troops, to a much increased US involvement in Vietnam. It was an act mirrored by another Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, nearly forty years later.

On 6 August 1964, the US Congress gave the President the power to take whatever action he thought necessary in Vietnam. This was expressed in The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Prime Minister Menzies and Foreign Minister Hasluck were led to believe that Australia would be asked to make a major commitment to the war in Vietnam.

If Menzies had wanted to prepare for the general but unspecified threat he implied existed through this logic he should have drafted young men not only into the army but also into the navy and air force, which would have been an extension of the system in operation from 1950-1960. This system required three months full time training and a camp once a year for another few years. It was scrapped because the service arms saw it as an unnecessary and unwanted drain on limited resources. Too much time was spent on training recruits rather than lifting and maintaining the skills of professional volunteers. But that was not what he had in mind at all. He was secretly planning an extensive troop commitment; he wanted boots on the ground in Vietnam and for that he needed an expanded army.

Ann Marie Jordens in a chapter, ‘Conscription and Dissent’, published in the book, ‘Vietnam Remembered’, New Holland, 2009, p 64, says “Menzies avoided seeking a mandate before introducing conscription for overseas service…and the intense secrecy with which the government enshrouded its plans, ensured no widespread debate occurred before the scheme was firmly in place.”

From 1965 to 1972, 804,000 young men registered for National Service, 63,375 Conscripts served in the army, 19,450 in Vietnam; 1479 were injured and 200 killed. Many others were killed and injured during training and in road accidents travelling inter-state to see family and friends. No record has been kept of National Servicemen who died whilst serving in the army, other than in Vietnam.

Over 61,000 Australians served in Vietnam, 42,700 in the army. In all 520 servicemen died in Vietnam and 2,398 were wounded.

Conscripts or Nasho’s, as they like to refer to themselves, were not legally allowed to vote or drink at the time of their registration; they were not allowed to take out a bank mortgage. They were legally underage. The only way out of military service was to fail the medical, become a conscientious objector, evade the law or be undertaking studies or skills training at the time of registration. Some were allowed to join the CMF because they were in reserved occupations such as farming.

Unlike regular soldiers awarded the Australian Defence Medal, they are not entitled to a pension. By and large they accepted their fate and made good and loyal soldiers. They fought with distinction in Vietnam and did their duty in Australia.

They are asking for recognition that at the age of twenty they were removed, sometimes forcibly, by the state from family, friends, jobs and careers and stripped of everything familiar, including their hair. They were taught to be aggressive, mechanical, neat and tidy.

Recognition of the nature of the 1965/72 National Service Scheme and of the ethics of conscripting men, not yet able to vote, for service overseas in a war as bloody and complex as either of the two World Wars and Korea needs acknowledgement and examination. The Australian Government conscripted and trained 63,000 men to go to a specific war. They were not just trained to be soldiers; they were trained to go to Vietnam.

Nasho’s who went to Vietnam, if eligible, get the health benefits due to veterans of that war. It has been suggested that the 1965/72 Conscripts would like a clasp on their National Service Medal to show the years in which they served and some limited benefits, such as an annual medical check and a rebate on commonly used drugs, hearing aids and glasses, for Conscripts who, although eligible, did not go to Vietnam

The Judicial Inquiry should look into the abuse brought about by the unjust act of the introduction of Conscription; an act that led to a great deal of protest and civil unrest at the time. The damage wrought by conscription is self evident and pivots on compulsion with loss of life and injury or the possibility of that happening. It also includes loss of liberty, choice, brutalization and possible psychological harm; which of course is not to deny that many Nashos made lifetime friends and greatly improved their life skills.

The Inquiry should examine the efficacy of an apology and the introduction of benefits to those who were Conscripted and who are not the recipient of other veteran entitlements.

Bruce Haigh is a former National Serviceman, diplomat and political commentator.

Published in CRIKEY 7 January 2013, THE CANBERRA TIMES and ON LINE OPINION 11 January 2013

Australia took up its two year seat on the UN Security Council on 1 January 2013. It is ill equipped to make the contribution expected of it. Whilst most other non-member states have a staff of sixteen or more to help run the seat, Australia has just eight. The penny pinching is not confined to New York. Sections, Branches and Divisions in Canberra that will be required to meet a substantially increased workload of briefings are understaffed. Already officers have been called back from leave to meet the demand.

However Australia is off to a bad start on the Council having agreed to accept chairmanship of the United Nations sanctions committee overseeing what sanctions should be applied against al Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran and entities dealing with them. No other country wants the job. The committee is a toothless tiger and chairing it will do little to increase Australian prestige or influence. As an early initiative Carr announced on 7 January that Australia would push for a UN arms trade treaty to reduce the flow of arms to terrorists and other renegade groups .If he were serious Carr might get the committee to consider sanctions against Sri Lanka.

The issues facing the UN Security Council are substantial with the Middle East requiring close focus and some tough decisions. At the top of the list is Syria, which is bringing into play NATO with the deployment of Patriot Missiles to Turkey. The rabid regime has caused a refugee humanitarian crisis in neighbouring countries. Resultant instability stalks neighbouring countries, whilst Israel pours fuel on the fire with further settlements on Palestinian land and a visceral hatred of Hamas, apparently precluding negotiations.

Egypt is struggling with a democracy managed by fundamentalists and Iran has a leadership respected by none and like North Korea (an ally) bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Afghanistan has been a costly failure and will sooner than later come under the control of the loathed Taliban, who have played the occupation by the US and NATO, every bit as skilfully as the occupation by the Russians was exploited internally by the Mujahideen. Pakistan is poised to gain influence, which will not play well with India. China has pocketed Sri Lanka and is securing what it wants from Pakistan in the form of naval bases and future access to some airbases.

Burma has moved into the US sphere of influence, a development not at all welcome to China, and Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Australia, have agreed to maintain or strengthen military ties. India, watchful of China, has so far been careful with the US, wanting and privately demanding recognition as a major world power. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia remain in play with both China and the US. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have the potential to ignite regional conflict.

Climate change will require a complex range of strategic and diplomatic responses, particularly in Pacific Island countries and the Indonesian Archipelago. The movement of people as a response to climate change and the resultant political upheaval and conflict will require a more sophisticated and planned response than has hitherto been the case.

The movement of food, particularly live meat and grain, will require new international agreements. Australia should take the initiative whilst it has the opportunity on the Security Council.

The stagnation and over-borrowing by Western economies has the prospect of causing political instability during Australia’s term on the Council. Several or more of the issues cited have the potential of coming to a head at the same time causing an escalating knock-on effect in the international community.

The inability of the United States to demonstrate the kind of leadership it expects from other states, particularly friends and allies, does not auger well for those states, such as Australia, that have tied their future to the listing mast of the US ship of state. Fundamental reform of gun laws and fiscal discipline, including the equitable redistribution of income through a fair and balanced tax system, might help maintain the respect necessary to support the notion of American exceptionalism, as expressed through the desire to influence and lead internationally.

The Federal Parliament and in particular the Government would do well to listen to and build on the diplomatic skills that it has at its disposal. These have been developed over the past seventy years. But these skills are being stretched and if we are to develop properly argued position papers for presentation on the Security Council, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade requires more staff.

On the other hand if we wish only to endorse United States policy, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard was prepared to do over recognising Palestine as a non-member state of the UN, until a revolt within her own party forced a change, then Australia could probably do without extra resources. But as a middle power with the potential to broker reform and positive change we should grasp the opportunity that membership of the Council offers to increase our political, diplomatic, commercial and trading leverage and influence.

Bob Carr is a better foreign minister than Kevin Rudd, but he still has much to learn. Amongst which is to listen to the professionals of his department. He has been well served by his departmental heads and the majority of his senior officers, but he undermines his authority and credibility on the international arena when he embraces the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka with the sole purpose of achieving the domestic objective of stopping boats with Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia. The foreign ministers of other countries are listening more closely to their briefings on Sri Lanka.

The Australian delegation from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the UNHCR said in November 2012 that it wanted Sri Lanka “…to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces…and all cases of abductions and disappearances.” Yet when meeting with President Rajapaksa late in December last year Carr said that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka was fine. Clearly that is not what his department believes. Carr is going to have to learn to listen. He is not in state politics now, spin will not suffice for short term gain. He is in the big league with some pretty tough players and he will need to rely on the experience of his professional diplomats.

Julia Gillard does not have much of a feel for international relations, as fickle as he has been, she will need to rely on Carr and the experience of his department, if Australia is not to look and act like an American red neck state wandering on the international stage.

The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, and his foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, have shown little greater aptitude for international relations than the Prime Minister. The foreign policy expertise of the Liberal Party and indeed on both sides of politics lies with Malcolm Turnbull. With the range and complexities of problems facing the international community in the foreseeable future and with Australia having sought and gained a seat on the Security Council, it cannot afford to approach this significant responsibility with anything other than committed professionalism. Spin and amateurism will cause harm, where otherwise a great deal of good could be achieved.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and a former diplomat, who served in Sri Lanka.