Are we going to see the military on the streets?

A new bill that could soon pass in federal parliament opens the way for the military to be more easily deployed against Australia’s civilian population.

The Defence Amendment (Call Out of the Australian Defence Force) Bill, first introduced into the lower house in late June and now up to its third reading, rewrites part of the 1903 Defence Act. 

Currently, state and territory authorities can request military intervention only when they have exhausted all other options in a time of crisis. The proposed amendments would allow military intervention simply if required to enhance state and territory forces.

If a federal government perceived a threat against Commonwealth property, it could send in the army without the permission of the relevant state or territory government. 

The bill also adds the minister for home affairs to the list of persons authorised to send the in military, and gives soldiers and other military personnel greater stop and seizure powers when responding to an “incident”. It will allow the military to act as a police force.

The watering down of the conditions required to justify military intervention, and the deliberate vagueness of the language used, will make such an intervention much more likely.

The government’s justification for the increased powers is, predictably, the supposed threat of terrorism. The bill was set into motion by the publication of a government report earlier this year, making recommendations in light of the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege. 

But the new powers would open the door to the military being used against mass strikes and protests should they ever threaten the interests of the rich and powerful.

We have seen this before in Australia. In 1949, Ben Chifley’s federal Labor government sent the army to crush a strike of 23,000 coal miners in New South Wales. Their crime was to demand higher wages and better conditions after the awful years of the Second World War. Plus their union, the Miners’ Federation, was led by the Communist Party. 

The army was also put on standby after the dismissal of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Around the world, as support for centrist political parties collapses thanks to the unpopularity of their economic austerity agendas, strong internally focused militaries have become more appealing to governments worried about mass public opposition.

This bill is part of a slide toward authoritarianism and should be rejected.