The further development of Australia's security state

The man responsible for Australia’s gulag archipelago of refugee concentration camps, Peter Dutton, will now preside over a Home Affairs department incorporating the AFP, ASIO, Border Force and Immigration. Changes to the Defence Act are soon to be passed through parliament making it easier to deploy the army domestically and extending the collaboration between the military and sections of the police force.

The announcements, made by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday and Tuesday, came with assurances that “the civil liberties of Australians are not eroded”. But the proposed legislative changes would further the militarisation of the country’s policing activities and help to normalise the participation of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) in domestic life. The creation of the Home Affairs department will result in a significant concentration of power into a single portfolio concerned with surveillance and harassment, and which will likely rank second only to the Treasury in terms of its prominence in federal politics.

Meanwhile, defence industry minister Christopher Pyne has declared his ambition to dramatically expand the arms industry in Australia and turn it into a major exporter. A supporter of the Australian republican movement, Pyne noted that the United Arab Emirates, an absolute monarchy that “shares many of our values”, would be a great export destination. “The ambitious goal … would mean Australia not only builds but also designs major military hardware such as naval warships and possibly even submarines”, wrote Fairfax journalist David Wroe. It would also result in the military playing more of a role in the domestic economy.

These are retrograde and dangerous developments. Australia is already a global leader when it comes to the militarisation of state borders. The government is also leading the charge against encryption software and pressuring telecommunications and technology companies to cooperate fully with security organisations when they attempt to gain access to the private communications of users.

The bipartisan support for the surveillance state and creeping militarisation has already led to increased coercive powers for state and federal police. ASIO has been significantly expanded and the deployment of the military against civilians has been normalised – primarily in the north Indian ocean against refugees and in the Northern Territory against Indigenous communities – but also occasionally in the cities during world gatherings. For example, a domestically-focused commando unit was established in Sydney after the 9/11 attacks. Its personnel were deployed for the 2002 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Queensland, the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the 2007 APEC meeting in Sydney and the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane.

The proposed changes to the Defence Act refer to the so-called call out powers, which refer to the federal government engaging the ADF domestically. These have been altered on several occasions, most notably in 2000, when the Act was amended to allow federal governments greater scope to deploy the military when “domestic violence is occurring or is likely to occur”. The changes were made with public reference to terrorism, but the wording remained broad and vague. “Domestic violence” could apply to numerous situations. Reviewing the changes, Kristine Toohey and Tracy Taylor noted:

“[T]he ‘shoot to kill’ provision of the Act protected Australian Defence Force personnel from prosecution for homicide and gave the military greater power than the police in relation to civilians, including being able to search premises without a warrant and detain civilians without arrest.”

Several months prior to the amendments, then defence minister John Moore had committed ADF personnel to the security operations surrounding the Sydney Olympics. According to a report in the Australian, the commander of the special forces issued “a warning to anybody who wants to interfere with the Olympic Games”: “we will interfere with them ... we are prepared to meet any challenge”.

In 2006, the law again was amended to give ADF personnel a range of new powers. Significantly, the changes allowed for soldiers to use lethal force in the event they deem it “necessary to protect designated critical infrastructure against a threat of damage or disruption to its operation”.

These changes, along with the increased international deployment of the military, came amid significant political mobilisations on the part of the media and politicians to reinvigorate the status of the armed forces among the population. In 1999, an Australian Financial Review editorial reflected on the popular mood for military intervention into East Timor:

“This call to arms has, for the first time in decades, given broad legitimacy to the proposition that Australia should be able to intervene militarily outside its territory. This raises the possibility of building a domestic consensus, not just in favour of increased defence spending, but of changing the structure of the defence force.”

At the same time, the Liberal prime minister led the charge to revive Anzac Day. The success of these campaigns can be measured in the huge crowds that now turn up to the dawn military service across the country, the lauding of the military at Anzac Day football matches, the relative ease by which ADF funding has been increased and the lack of general outrage over the domestic deployment of troops.

In fact, one of the most striking developments since the Timor deployment has been the relative ease by which the ADF has been rebranded as a specialist fighting force that simply is engaged in a war, both domestic and international, against terror networks.

So, as a result of the changes announced this week, special forces will now help train sections of the police forces and military officers will be offered for embedding within state police divisions. The government says that it will also “remove some constraints in the provisions to ‘call out’ the ADF to assist states and territories. This will include the removal of the provision that currently limits states and territories from asking for ADF support and specialist military skills until their capability or capacity has been exceeded”.

This is not to suggest that the ADF will be on street corners around the country playing a hyper-active role in anything but the most extreme circumstances. While the shifting role and responsibility of the military is significant, it doesn’t represent a decisive shift away from civil rule to military junta. But Aboriginal people and Muslims have already felt the brunt of security state bursting into their homes; more people will experience it on the street in the future.

Moreover, the encroaching of the military into so many aspects of life – national celebrations, popular cultural events, policing and, if Chris Pyne gets his way, the economy – is bad news. The democratic space has already been hollowed out by decades of right wing policy that have put the Treasury Department at the apex of policy evaluation and allowed a narrow, prescriptive set of economic assumptions to be the ultimate test of a policy proposal’s worth. If a proposal doesn’t meet the test of “fiscal responsibility”, as defined by the Treasury, it is often ruled out of order.

Now, as we head down the path of the security state, it is likely that more and more political decisions will become subject to judgements about how they fit within a “national security” framework. In the absence of an all-out war, the extent will be limited, but it will be there. If there is a terrorist attack or a disturbance that can be painted as a question of national security, the groundwork has been laid for the military to be welcomed onto the streets.