The documentary Disaster Capitalism opens with the earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Through the ghostly fog of CCTV video, we see the ground furiously shake buildings into dust. Fronted by Australian journalist and writer Antony Loewenstein and shot over six years, in collaboration with director Thor Neureiter, Director of Video at Columbia University, the film visits and revisits three countries — Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea — riven by various crises and trapped in a cycle of dependence on Western aid. This cycle, Loewenstein tells Crikey, is no accident.
“I thought it was important to look at how these countries are connected politically and financially, in other words, how certain conditions are designed to keep poor countries poor,” he said.
Filming began in 2011, when Loewenstein was working on a book of the same name.
“The aim wasn’t to spend six years making the film,” Loewenstein said. “But there is something to be said for seeing how these countries evolve over six years. All that’s really changed is that PMs or presidents have come and gone, but they remain economically broken and I thought it was important to look at why.”
Cycle of dependency
A key factor in the Disaster Capitalism is that these countries are not, and never have been, without the resources to pay their own way. Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan in particular are rich in minerals. Loewenstein says this is part of the problem.
“Trump has been very keen to really harness and expand the mining industry if Afghanistan, and they’re tying aid to that … So aid is being used to not help people, but to enrich foreign businesses. Look at PNG, it has huge resources, and after several decades of those being exploited, it hasn’t helped the locals one bit.”
Aid not only enriches Australian business interests, Loewenstein says, but backs up political aims.
“Aid to PNG has been increased, in my view, to provide a bribe to the PNG government to house the refugees we don’t want,” he said. “Obviously not all of the aid money is related to the pacific solution, but aid has gone up since it was revitalised under Labor.”
And the oversight ensuring that aid isn’t misspent or funnelled towards corruption, he says, is weak.
“People in government will tell you there’s lots of oversight and reporting with aid. But I think the problem is that there’s almost no political cost to [Western politicians] if Afghanistan’s aid doesn’t do its job — no one is going to lose their seat over that.”
Part of this stems from those bodies tasked with aid oversight — such as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — who expose the misuse of aid, have their findings ignored.
“[SIGAR] do amazing work and deliver important reports, and what happens? They’re largely ignored … Obama promised to make the system more transparent and open, and did nothing in his eight years. So I think there has to be more of a political cost when aid money isn’t just ineffective, but governments know that it’s actively going to corruption.”
This oversight is even weaker in Australia, where there is currently no equivalent to SIGAR.
“There are senate committees and politicians who ask these questions, so oversight exists, but it’s weak, doesn’t get much of a voice, and get’s almost no media attention.”
Loewenstein says that many of the worst elements effecting aid may, paradoxically, lead to improving the debate.
“The debate Trump has started, ironically enough, asks the question: is more aid automatically a good thing? The argument from the left has traditionally been that we need more money and support for the poor of the world, and what I’m saying is, after 30, 40, 50 years, these countries are not improving. You have to ask why.”
Further, Loewenstein hopes the current sexual assault scandal afflicting Oxfam — in which aid workers were found to be exploiting vulnerable women — may help illustrate one of the fundamental problems with the current international aid system.
“A lot of other orgnisations are doing the same thing, and hopefully this makes people more aware of what happens when the relationship between aid giver and aid recipients is really unhealthy,” he said.
“So what I hope comes out of this, and it’s so obvious, but far too often aid is administered without asking the people on the ground what they want. You’d be amazed how rarely that happens.”
Broadcast rights for Disaster Capitalism have been sold to several European territories and screenings can be organised through Demand Films.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in trouble, and it partly stems from his close relationship with Australia’s most recognisable billionaire, James Packer.
The country’s second longest-serving Prime Minister is facing potential charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust after an extensive investigation by Israeli police. They accuse Netanyahu of accepting nearly $US300,000 ($A380,000) in gifts over 10 years.
“Case 1000” which is also known as “Cigars and Champagne,” revolves around alleged bribery and paying for favours. Packer, along with Hollywood producer and former secret Israeli agent Arnon Milchan, are alleged to be those behind the payments.
It’s now up to the country’s Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, to decide whether the police evidence is strong enough to indict the Prime Minister.
Netanyahu does not deny accepting huge gifts from both men, but refutes allegations that he granted them any favours.
Milchan’s personal assistant, Hadas Klein, told Israeli police in November that, “there was an understanding that Arnon had to supply the Netanyahu couple with whatever they wanted. The cigars were requested by Netanyahu personally.”
The Prime Minister alleges that pink champagne and expensive jewellery requested by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, were tokens of good friendship with Milchan.
Israeli police claim that Netanyahu pushed for the “Milchan law”, cutting taxes for returning Israelis who have spent time overseas, helped Milchan get a 10-year US visa and assisted the producer in furthering his film work. Israeli police have also recommended charging Milchan.
Packer’s relationship with the Netanyahu family is also under scrutiny (though he is not facing charges). According to testimony released by Israel’s Channel 10 in late 2017 after Packer spoke to Australian Federal Police agents in Australia on behalf of Israeli investigators, the casino mogul said: “I admire Prime Minister Netanyahu and am happy that I was given the opportunity to be his friend. I was happy to give him presents, many times at his request and his wife Sara’s request”.
At the time of the interview, a spokesman for Mr Packer’s Crown Resorts said: “There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr Packer’s behalf … The Israeli and Australian police have confirmed that he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.”
Netanyahu allegedly requested gifts and services from Packer worth up to $US100,000 including champagne, tickets to a Mariah Carey concert (Packer was previously engaged to the pop star) and cigars. Packer also showered Netanyahu’s son, Yair, with gifts including free accommodation at his luxury properties around the world.
Netanyahu responded that Packer was his “neighbour and friend” and “now and again, I asked him to bring me something to Israel from abroad”.
Netanyahu’s friendship with Packer reportedly began in 2014 when the Australian businessman met the Israeli leader at a dinner organised by Milchan and Packer. They apparently connected quickly and Packer soon purchased a multimillion dollar mansion in Israel beside a property owned by Netanyahu.
Packer accelerated his business interests in Israel’s cyber-security industry, saying in 2015 that he wanted to build a company with Milchan because, “Israel now has the highest start-ups per capita in the world and this will provide major opportunities in the future”.
Packer was with Netanyahu in the US Congress and UN General Assembly in 2015 when the Israeli Prime Minister slammed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. In the same year, Packer echoed Netanayhu’s hardline position, saying that it was “the stupidest thing I’ve seen in my life”.
Israel’s Interior Minister confirmed to the ABC in 2017 that he had met Packer’s lawyer to discuss possible residency and citizenship of Israel. Such a development would have significant tax advantages for Packer.
Case 2000 is another headache for Netanyahu. He’s accused of colluding with the publisher of one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth. Caught on tape, the Israeli Prime Minister was telling its owner Arnon Mozes that he would convince his paper’s main competition, Israeli Hayom, owned by Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson, to reduce its circulation.
Netanyahu reportedly asked Mozes in return if he could get his publication to be less critical of the Prime Minister and his government. Netanyahu now says he wasn’t serious, but Adelson partially confirmed the allegation, telling Israeli police last year that Netanyahu had asked him not to expand his media outlet.
Adelson used to be Netanyahu’s biggest backer in his battles with the Palestinians and Obama administration, but that friendship appears to have cooled. Adelson is a key Donald Trump backer and reportedly encouraged the US President to move its embassy to Jerusalem and quash Palestinian nationalism for good.
Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him and continues to serve as the country’s Prime Minister.
He has been in a similar situation twice before, facing corruption allegations in 1997 and 2000, but both times he escaped being charged. Israel has a long history of former politicians being indicted for corruption including, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who served time in prison for accepting bribes during his time as mayor of Jerusalem.
Columnist Anshel Pfeffer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes that Netanyahu’s fatal flaw is that, “just like his belief in the cult of hasbara (or public diplomacy), and that if only Israel explains itself better to the world, everyone will be won over, he’s convinced that his image, as presented by the media, is the source of all his setbacks”.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and was based in Jerusalem in 2016/2017
My film Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, is screening publicly soon.
Last weekend I was interviewed by Hugh Riminton on Australia’s ABC Radio National Sunday Extra program about it:
When war or disaster strikes, we assume our aid contributions are life-saving, or at the very least will help rebuild countries and shattered communities. But some say trade works better than aid. Antony Loewenstein spent six years examining nations that have been pulled apart by conflict and disaster, and he’s produced ‘Disaster Capitalism’, a documentary currently being shown on limited release.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is unsurprising and clarifying. It proves, once and for all, that Washington will only do the bidding of the Jewish state.
I was interviewed on Australian news program The Wire about the move:
Access and ownership of Jerusalem have been a hot issue for decades after its occupation by Israel. Peace talks have stalled multiple times and Donald Trump has thrown a spanner in the works once more.
The US President recently announced his intentions to move the US Embassy into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Which has caused condemnation from other political leaders and protests in the streets. The consequences of his actions could be felt for years.
In the last months, I’ve been a judge on a great literary prize, Fair Australia, organised by Overland magazine:
What does a fairer world look like, and how do we get there? The Fair Australia Prize asks writers and artists to engage with these questions and imagine a new political agenda for Australia through fiction, essays, poetry, cartoons and art.
Many thanks to the 2017 judges – Michalia Arathimos, Jennifer Down, Emma Kerin, Antony Loewenstein, Godfrey Moase, Jacinda Woodhead, Ellen van Neerven, Toby Fitch, Carina Garland, Sam Wallman, Cathy Wilcox and Sam Davis – and to all the writers and artists who submitted entries this year. Note: the competition will reopen in 2018.
Overland, the National Union of Workers, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, and the National Tertiary Education Union (VIC) are very pleased to announce the winning entries of this year’s prize, which will be published in Overland’s final edition of the year, to be launched Monday 11 December in Melbourne.
The fine winner of the essay section that I co-judged:
A snapshot of Albert Namatjira is a window into the injustices befalling Indigenous Australians, who are still denied a voice in determining their destiny in contemporary Australia.
Julian Bull studied natural resources management and landscape architecture at the Universities of Adelaide and Melbourne. His numerous articles on landscape architecture, urban design and art have been published in Australia and overseas.
I’m currently working on a new, investigative book on the global “war on drugs” covering vast parts of the world consumed by the drug war (from Honduras to West Africa). It’ll be published by Scribe in Australia, the UK and beyond in 2019.
This week I was interviewed by the US podcast, Bitcoin Uncensored, on this book, what my research has taught me so far, what legalisation/decriminalisation looks like etc. And yes, the words are out of sync (technical issues):
After 25 years of increasingly extreme Australian policies against asylum seekers both onshore and offshore, perhaps it’s time to think about more active measures to change course.
I was interviewed by the Guardian about my suggestions:
The author and journalist Antony Loewenstein is attempting to open up another front in the campaign against offshore detention. He has argued for some time that an international boycott of Australia over Manus is a key way to pressure the government. He wants to see a sporting and tourism boycott, and a boycott of companies “profiting from onshore and offshore detention”.
“Protest is vital but the old methods have failed to change decades of bipartisan support for mandatory detention of asylum seekers and other human rights violations,” Loewenstein told the Guardian.
My following article appears in Australian news outlet, Crikey:
Let’s talk about boycotting Australia.
Australia’s war on asylum seekers at Manus Island, Nauru and other privatised detention facilities on the Australian mainland is seemingly unstoppable by traditional means. While condemned by every human rights organisation in the world, Canberra is unmoved. The demonisation of (mostly) brown and Muslim individuals is an effective tool for politicians as well as many in the Murdoch and tabloid press to whip up fear and aggression against outsiders. And it’s been working for 25 years with Australia now inspiring hardline European policies.
When politics and international law fail to intervene if abuses occur, alternative tactics are required. Supporting a tourist and sporting boycott is one way to draw local and international attention to Australia’s mistreatment of refugees. It would inevitably lead to a hardening of views among some Australians, and vicious opposition by many in the media who would label it unrealistic or extreme — but that’s exactly the point. Business-as-usual ideas have failed for more than two decades. It’s time to try something new.
Back in 2014, I wrote in The Guardian that the United Nations should impose sanctions on Australia over its asylum seeker policies. Then and now it was a highly contentious view, and the UN is a deeply flawed and corrupt body itself, but my aim was to make Australians realise that turning a blind eye to what was happening on Manus Island and elsewhere should come with a tangible, economic price. In other words, let’s turn capitalism against a rich, capitalist country.
In 2015, I wrote in The Guardian again about boycotting companies, and divesting from them through shareholder activism, that financially benefited from Australia’s refugee policies. This included Serco, G4S and International Health and Medical Services. Earlier this year, when I raised the idea on ABC TV of a sports boycott against Australia, the online response was often vitriolic (though far from entirely).
“Sports and politics don’t mix” was the most tiresome response, as if people had conveniently forgotten the long and noble tradition of fighting oppression and racism during apartheid South Africa and in the US today with sports and its icons. There’s also a growing global divestment campaign against the coal industry.
The growing success of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, to pressure the Jewish state to abide by international law in its war against the Palestinians, is because it has massive Palestinian support within Palestine, granting the movement legitimacy in the eyes of global activists.
There are examples of Australians pushing for similar legitimacy here with current and former asylum seekers. The only Australian organisation that I know that’s pushing to sanction Australia is Rise: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees. They state: “Australia should be excluded from participation in all international humanitarian and human rights decision making processes until mandatory detention and refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees is abolished in Australia.”
What would a boycott against Australia look like? Because it’s unlikely that any countries would refuse to play Australia in cricket, football, hockey, netball or rugby (as these nations are themselves involved in abuses against minorities), it’s up to engaged citizens to put pressure on teams and their corporate sponsors to take a public stand against Australia’s refugee posture. Generate public protests in Australia and globally when Australia’s national team plays. Brief activists in foreign cities to write letters and op-eds whenever Australia appears. Australians crave global acceptance and will loathe being forced to consider why their teams are being shunned.
A tourist boycott is equally appealing (and a German journalist recently advocated for it). Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry and many people would undoubtedly suffer if fewer foreigners visited. But there are ways to try and avoid this result. After the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, some activists asked tourists not to come because the government was attempting to white-wash its crimes (or at least be careful not to stay at hotels or fly on airlines backed by the regime).
Australians could encourage potential tourists, with the aid of a helpful website, to back local communities and economies with no connection to corporations complicit in some way to Australia’s refugee policies. Activists could use culture jamming techniques to challenge Australian tourist ads running around the world, showing the reality away from the pretty beaches. Social media is an effective weapon here, producing alternative tourist messages with images from Manus Island and Nauru.
There’s no one way to end Australia’s cruelty towards asylum seekers but most of the current tactics have failed. If Australians start paying a real price for their acquiesce in punishing refugees, the politics may start to slowly change.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, film-maker, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”.
I signed the following public statement to support peaceful protest of the secretive US spy base at Pine Gap in Australia. It’s directed at Attorney General George Brandis:
We seek your urgent intervention to protect the right to freedom of speech, expression, political communication and of religion for six Australian citizens who face up to seven years in jail for a peaceful protest in which they were praying and playing musical instruments.
In September 2016, several hundred Australians of diverse ages, professions and creeds gathered in Alice Springs to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Pine Gap Agreement.
As part of the peaceful protests near the facility, five Christians prayed and played a musical lament, regarding the role of Pine Gap in war-fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. They were arrested.
The peaceful and symbolic ceremonies conducted by Margaret Pestorius, Tim Webb, Franz Dowling, Andrew Paine, Jim Dowling, as well as Paul Christie (arrested in a separate incident), were intended to bear witness to the death and suffering of civilians as a result of United States military operations, including drone assassinations, facilitated by surveillance conducted at Pine Gap.
Since their peaceful protests, more evidence has emerged detailing the role of Pine Gap in the activities that concerned the Peace Pilgrims. It implicates Australia in extrajudicial drone assassinations in countries with which we are not at war, in nuclear weapons targeting and in illegal mass surveillance.
Three months after the protest, you authorised the prosecution of these concerned citizens for ‘unlawful entry’ under the Defence Special Undertakings Act 1952 (Cth).
That legislation was drafted at the height of the Cold War to secure areas for British nuclear testing, and it permits prosecutions to be held in secret, and for records of hearings to be destroyed, imposing penalties of up to $42,000 and 7 years in jail.
This prosecution occurs as Australia prepares to serve on the UN Human Rights Council and when UN Rapporteurs have criticised policies, laws and actions of your government that undermine freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to protest. These are fundamental civil rights, and they are profoundly important when governments are engaged in the sort of conduct which Pine Gap facilitates.
Five of the defendants are devout Christians. Their faith impelled them to give voice to the teachings of peace and love for humanity and creation found in the Bible.
In this case, where Australian citizens were doing no more than praying and peacefully expressing dissent, prosecuting them is not only grossly inappropriate but a shocking waste of court resources.
We, the undersigned, urge you to exercise your discretion to direct this punitive, disproportionate and expensive prosecution be discontinued before the matter comes to court in Alice Springs on 13 November 2017.
- Jennifer Robinson, human rights lawyer, Doughty Chambers
- Ben Oquist, Executive Director, The Australia Institute
- Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author
- Alex Kelly, documentary filmmaker
- Melinda Taylor, international criminal lawyer
- Rebecca Peters AO
- Julian Burnside AO QC
- Scott Ludlam, writer, graphic designer, activist
- Asher Wolf, journalist, Cryptoparty founder
- Dr Giordano Nanni, founder Juice Media
- Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist
- Benedict Coyne, President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
- Anthony Kelly, Executive Officer, Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre Inc.
- Dr Helen Caldicott, President, Beyond Nuclear
- Professor Brian Martin, University of Wollongong
- John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker
- Mark Zirnsak, Director, Justice & International Mission, Uniting Church
- Elizabeth O’Shea, lawyer
- Professor Tilman Ruff AM
- Father Peter Maher OAM
- Archie Law, Chair, Sydney Peace Foundation
- Tim Lo Surdo, founding director, Democracy in Colour
- Richard Tanter, Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne
- Emeritus Professor Joseph A. Camilleri OAM
- Paddy Manning, journalist
- Dr Sue Wareham OAM
- Professor Emeritus Stuart Rees AM, University of Sydney
- Annette Brownlie, Chairperson IPAN
- Romina Beistseen, Secretary CICD
- Helen Razer, writer and broadcaster
- Professor Robert Moody, Melbourne University
- Shirley Winton, Spirit of Eureka (Victoria)
- Jeff Sparrow, writer, editor and broadcaster
- Dr Margaret Beavis, Immediate Past President, Medical Association for Prevention of War
- Andrew Farran, international lawyer
- Dr. Alison Broinowski, writer and former Australian diplomat
- Father John Pettit OCSO
- Chas Licciardello, writer, comedian, broadcaster
- John Menadue AO, businessperson and former Australian diplomat
- Cam Walker, National Liaison Officer, Friends of the Earth
- Rob Stary, criminal defence lawyer, Adjunct Professor of Law Victoria University
- Bernard Keane, Politics Editor, Crikey
- Brett Dean, Composer, Viola player
- Professor Peter Norden AO, Fellow, Australian & New Zealand Society of Criminology
- Dr Tim Sherratt, University of Canberra
- Chris Drummond, Theatre Director
- Paul Barratt, Former Secretary, Dep’t of Defence, President, Australians for War Powers Reform
- Donna Mulhearn, writer and activist
- Harold Wilkinson, Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee
- Anne Sgro OAM, President of Union of Australian Women Victoria
- Professor Mary Heath, Flinders University
- Dr. Peter Burdon, Associate Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide
- Dr Sal Humphreys, Media Studies, University of Adelaide
- Tim Singleton Norton, Chair, Digital Rights Watch
- Greg Barns , Barrister, Former National President Australian Lawyers Alliance
- Richard Broinowski, President, AIIA NSW
- Associate Professor Debra King, Sociology, Flinders University
- Denis Doherty, national co-ordinator, Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition
- Dr Hannah Middleton, peace and justice activist
- Mary Kostakidis, journalist
- Frank Moorehouse AM, writer
- Roger Clarke, UNSW, ANU, Australian Privacy Foundation
- Amanda Tattersall, Host, ChangeMakers
- Tim Hollo, Executive Director, the Green Institute
- Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens and Senator for Victoria
- Adam Bandt MP, Acting Co-Deputy Leader, Australian Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne
- Senator Janet Rice, Senator for Victoria
- Senator Lee Rhiannon, Senator for NSW
- Senator Rachel Siewert, Acting Co-deputy Leader Australian Greens, Senator for Western Australia
- Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, Senator for Tasmania
- Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator for South Australia
- David Pledger, artist, curator
- Jo Vallentine, People for Nuclear Disarmament, W.A.
- Rob Pyne MP, Independent Member for Cairns
My major investigation in the Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald on Australia’s surging defence industry:
This year’s Avalon Air Show in Geelong was the first chance for the public to see the long-delayed Joint Strike Fighter in action. At a cost of at least $100 million per aircraft, Canberra is slated to spend $17 billion on 72 F-35s in the coming years.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defence contractor, has faced countless problems with the plane including cost blowouts (spending more than $US1 trillion and counting), a Pentagon report in January finding 276 deficiencies (with 20 new issues discovered per month) and consistent troubles with overheating and cybersecurity. An Australian contractor on the aircraft was recently hacked, with sensitive material stolen.
None of this dampened the mood at Avalon. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with Defence Minister Marise Payne, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, praised the plane and Australia’s growing defence sector.
“It is an example of how our defence industry plan is not simply securing our Air Force and our Army and our Navy with the capabilities they need to keep us safe in the 21st century,” Turnbull said. “It is driving the advanced manufacturing, the jobs, the advanced technology that Australians need to make sure our children and grandchildren have the opportunities in the years ahead.”
Billed as Australia’s premiere showcase of defence, civilian and aerospace equipment, sponsored by the world’s major defence companies such as BAE Systems, Raytheon, Thales, L3, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, along with Australia’s Department of Defence and the Victorian Labor government, this year was the largest in Avalon’s history, with over 210,000 people in attendance.
But away from Avalon’s glitzy surface, and its promotion of a family-friendly event to watch the world’s most sophisticated aircraft, is a darker reality. Australia’s defence sector has hugely expanded in recent years with barely any public discussion, let alone debate in federal parliament.
It’s a nearly impossible task to discover exactly what Australia is selling and to whom because the federal government refuses to say, but nuggets of information make it clear that Canberra is aggressively selling weapons and defence equipment to countries involved in conflicts where human rights abuses are being perpetrated.
Australian Defence Magazine released figures in December 2016 that revealed the scope of the industry. The top 40 defence contractors, including top players BAE Systems Australia and Raytheon Australia, had an annual turnover of $10.384 billion, 11 per cent higher than 2015 and the biggest in the magazine’s 21-year history.
According to Amnesty International, in 2016 the world spent $US1.69 trillion on the military, with the US Pentagon issuing $US304 billion in contracts to corporations including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
But how transparent is Australia’s defence spending internationally? In December 2016, Christopher Pyne visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior members of the regime, including the head of the National Guard. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, filed in April by the Australian group, The Medical Association for Prevention of War, found that Canberra was looking to expand the reach of its domestic defence sector and had no issue selling equipment with dual use (for either military or civilian purposes). The government refused to give a full list of companies accompanying Pyne.
Saudi Arabia launched military action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2015 and the humanitarian situation in what was already the poorest country in the Middle East has rapidly deteriorated. At least 10,000 civilians have been killed, cholera ravages millions of citizens and Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing war crimes by human rights groups. In October the UN included the kingdom on a blacklist for killing and injuring children (though the UN has previously backed down on similar steps under Saudi pressure).
Britain has refused to support a United Nations investigation into atrocities because it could affect trade and weapons sales and in July Britain’s High Court backed London’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia as legal. Charity War Child UK has claimed that British arms companies have earned more than £6 billion ($10.3 billion) from trade with Saudi Arabia since the Yemen conflict began (Holland banned such sales in 2016).
Australia has refused to condemn Saudi actions in Yemen. The heavily redacted FOI revealed that there was discussion during Pyne’s December trip of the Royal Saudi Naval Force eastern fleet expansion with a budget of $26 billion (Australian shipbuilder Austal accompanied Pyne on his visit), talk of the Tasmanian, Incat-designed and built aluminium catamaran damaged by a Houthi attack off the coast of Yemen in October 2016 and consultation about a future submarine program (though whose was not clear).
I asked the Australian Department of Defence for further information on any dealings with Saudi Arabia and was told that “Defence does not release the details of export approvals due to commercial-in-confidence restrictions. Exports of military equipment and technology to Saudi Arabia were assessed in line with Australian export control provisions.”
Then Greens senator Scott Ludlam was one of the only parliamentarians who questioned Australia’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. He told Fairfax Media that he could find nobody in the Labor Party to support his enquiries into Pyne’s trip.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale told me that he condemned Australia’s “military-industrial complex”: “Why promote Australia as a global arms dealer when we could be revitalising our manufacturing industry around new energy technology?”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is one of the world’s leading researchers on conflict and armaments. Its latest figures, for the period 2010-2016, showed ships as the biggest Australian export, along with aircraft, missiles and armoured vehicles. The list of customers included Papua New Guinea, Oman, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Singapore and the United States.
I asked the Department of Defence to whom they were selling defence equipment. They said that no export licences were granted between January 2015 and the present day to Myanmar (currently engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, according to the UN), but during the same period dual-use equipment and technology was sold to the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
The UAE stands accused of committing abuses in Libya and Yemen while Israel has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups for war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. An Australian intelligence company, iOmniscient, is selling surveillance equipment to the brutal Bahrain dictatorship. Canberra is already one of the world’s biggestimporters and exporters of small arms.
The federal government’s 2016 Defence White Paper outlined a $200 billion investment over the next 10 years. Canberra promotes its wares at events such as this year’s Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London, though protesters greeted the tens of thousands of participants.
Pyne said in July that his ambition was for Australia to “enormously increase that capacity and send a lot more weapons overseas to appropriate countries and appropriate places of course. We simply wouldn’t do so willy-nilly. We have a particular process for that.”
He says that current contracts are worth $200 billion in the coming years. That’s a massive expansion of defence exports from 2003/2004, when they amounted to just under $600 million.
The move was slammed by World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, who questioned whether Australia should be “exporting death and profiting from bloodshed … Do we really want that to be what people think of when they see the brand ‘made in Australia’?”
The federal government states that export applications are granted against the following criteria: international obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign policy. The government’s Global Supply Chain program gives exclusive access to Australian companies to enter into close commercial relationships with, and provide vital parts to, Lockheed Martin, Rheinmetall, Northrop Grumman, Thales, Boeing, BAE and Raytheon.
Some of these corporations have unprecedented access to decision making in the Trump administration, with the US President filling key roles in Homeland Security and the Pentagon with defence contractors. However, Barack Obama sold more weapons globally than any US commander-in-chief before him.
Australia’s ambition to expand its defence sector is intimately tied to the growth of the world’s biggest weapons companies on Australian soil, despite them being connected to some of the world’s major conflicts and controversies.
Thales is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the European Union’s increasingly militarised border policies and Lockheed Martin is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. Lockheed Martin refused to answer my questions about its role in Australia despite its presence growing by the year (including the establishment of a research facility at the University of Melbourne, praised by Pyne).
But Australia’s goal of becoming a global weapons dealer may be futile. SIPRI’s senior researcher Siemon Wezeman has closely studied Australia’s defence policies and questions their stated aims.
“To be honest, I don’t see Australia becoming a major arms exporter in any near future,” he told me. “The list of exports in the last decade gives not the greatest reasons to be optimistic about exports of major weapons from Australia, the more so since the new-produced weapons listed are not very advanced and are not niche weapons. Australia has no comparative advantage and many other countries produce or can produce them cheaper.”
Wezeman stresses that Australia has made decisions to largely “cater for its own needs, largely now as subsidiaries of foreign companies, which works nicely if the government wants to spend its money in Australia (even if that may be not 100 per cent cost-effective).” He sees China, South Korea, Turkey, Japan and Singapore elbowing out Australia on the world stage because of their industrial, political and military connections.
In his seminal 2011 book on the global arms trade The Shadow World, journalist Andrew Feinstein exposes the fallacies of a nation’s expanding defence sector. “The arms industry’s economic contribution is undermined by the frequency with which its main players around the world, Lockheed Martin, BAE, Boeing, Northrop Grumman … are implicated in grand corruption, inefficiency and wastage of public resources,” he wrote.
Feinstein concludes that the arms trade “often makes us poorer, not richer, less not more safe, and governed not in our own interests but for the benefit of a small, self-serving elite, seemingly above the law, protected by the secrecy of national security and accountable to no one”.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, filmmaker, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheand is currently working on a book about the global war on drugs.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten travelled to Israel this week to “celebrate” the 100-year anniversary of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration. Palestine was barely on the agenda. After living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years, I was interviewed for Lateline by ABC TV reporter Michael Vincent on the grim reality in Palestine:
The show has gone viral. One clip, of fellow journalist John Lyons and I talking about the Zionist lobby’s pressuring of critical voices, has been watched nearly 100,000 times (and growing fast). It’s received international attention.
Back in 2014, I argued in The Guardian that Australia should suffer a sports boycott due to its illegal asylum seeker policies. I made the same point on this TV show and many people, with a few notable exceptions, welcomed the idea. Australian legal academic Dr Amy McGuire wrote a story in The Conversation around the issue.