Australian leader faces bases
blowback By Graeme Dunston
When the first contingent of 250 US
Marines flew into Darwin last April, they were
greeted on the tarmac with a personal handshake by
Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith and
welcomed to the city by the chief minister of the
Northern Territory (NT), Paul Henderson. Both men
are members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
When the Marines' rotation finished in
August, US Ambassador Jeffery L Bleitch and the
Commandant of US Marines, General James Amos, came
to Darwin to do a PR jig and celebrate its success
- a success measured, it seems, as the absence of
riots and major crime. But there was another
notable absence: crowing ALP politicians.
It was two weeks out from the NT elections
and, with the tides of fortune turning against the
ALP all across the land, the ALP
electioneers had turned
cautious. In April, they had been buoyed by a poll
from the right-wing Lowry Institute, which claimed
that 73% of Australians supported US Marines being
based in Darwin. But now they were not quite so
A base by any other
name Only days before this PR stunt, a
report to the US Congress had recommended a US
naval base be built for a nuclear carrier task
force at Stirling, near Perth in Western
Australia. This was spposed by both the state
premier and the ALP opposition leader, and such
was the national repugnance that, overnight,
Defense Minister Smith changed his language from
"nothing definite but maybe in the future" to
"definitely not! No US bases!"
about Darwin? The US Marines in Darwin, he
claimed, do not constitute a base. Rather, they
inhabit a "joint rotational facility" at an
existing Australian Army base. Which makes the
Marines sound as harmless as an inter-service
waltz club, or maybe a circle of pot smokers.
The Marine base issue dogged Henderson
throughout the election campaign. Why was there no
parliamentary debate about Darwin becoming a
garrison town for 2,500 Marines or more, he was
asked? How long will they be there? Why was there
no consultation with Darwin's people?
dogging Henderson was the jet noise of Operation
Pitch Black, a US-led air war game involving 94
war planes from six nations, many taking off and
landing from the Darwin airport, a mere five
kilometers from the city center and surrounded by
For the four weeks in the lead-up
to the elections, jet noise was a hot issue in the
letters columns. The deluded and the deaf named it
the sound of freedom. The awakened and the worried
named it the sound of war and, more particularly,
the sound of preparation for war with China.
From the outset, the Henderson campaign
had dropped all reference to its ALP origins. He
was Henderson of Team Henderson. But there was no
hiding the ALP weasel words about the US Marines.
Every time he tried to explain the US base away,
Team Henderson bled credibility.
5.1% swing, Terry Mills' Country Liberal Party,
which had been so fractious and dippy in
opposition that even the local Murdoch-owned daily
newspaper had predicted its defeat, won the
election. Mills had been no less loyal than
Henderson when it came to saluting the
US-Australia alliance, but he had added a genuine
personal note of concern.
On a recent
visit to Indonesia, he told his audiences that he
had been surprised by the number of Indonesians
who expressed concern about the presence of the US
Marines in Darwin and alarm at Australia's supine
acquiescence to it. Now in office, he is
determined to build fraternal ties between Darwin
and Jakarta independently of the feds.
Kingdom for a base Four years
ago, all eight states and territories of Australia
had ALP governments. The loss of the last of them
bodes ill for the already unpopular ALP government
in Canberra. Led by Kevin Rudd, the ALP had been
swept to power in 2007 on the wave of electoral
revulsion with former prime minister John Howard -
the man who committed Australian troops to the
Iraq and Afghan wars in defiance of some of the
biggest protests Australia had ever seen.
But in much the same way as US President
Barack Obama made George W Bush's wars his own,
Rudd not only upped combat troops in Afghanistan
from 1,100 to 1,550 but also increased defense
spending by an astounding 40%. After current Prime
Minister Julia Gillard deposed Rudd in 2010, she
in turn made Rudd's militarism her own.
Though the polls consistently show that
about two in three Australians want the troops
home, Gillard has stubbornly stuck with the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization script: training
forces are to come out in 2014, but special forces
are to stay indefinitely. Not even the recent
deaths of five Australians could sway her
loyalties to the US war.
Now her worries
are compounded by the blowback against the US
Marine base at Darwin, which will dog her in the
run-up to the November 2013 federal elections.
As a sign of how sensitive Gillard's
campaign managers have become about the issue of
US bases and the prospect of US joint command of
troops at Australian bases, the government
recently let a major turning point in the history
of the US alliance go by uncelebrated.
Australian major general, Rick Burr, was appointed
deputy commander of the US Pacific Command, which
includes 60,000 soldiers - almost twice the size
of the Australian army - with an area of interest
stretching from Hawaii to the western border of
India, and from the Antarctic to Mongolia.
Gillard's government said almost nothing.
But voters are showing they have a
contempt too deep. Gillard is facing the prospect
of not only being driven from the prime minister's
office, but also, like the reviled Howard before
her, of losing her seat and being driven from
The cost of the
ALP's unquestioning submission to the demands of
the US-Australian military alliance is proving to
be the marginalization of the party and the
opening of a new era of political volatility.
Graeme Dunstan is an Australian
peace activist and the head of Peacebus.