presentation to the inaugural IPAN national conference.
G'day I'm very pleased to join you for this important event. I'm motivated to attend the conference and other activities this week because of my interest in nuclear disarmament but I'm speaking now, because I've come from Darwin, where I'm a founding member of BaseWatch.
BaseWatch is a small community organisation that formed in late 2011 to field the range of community concerns we anticipated from our city's position at the frontline of much of the increased American military build up that was the catalyst for the formation of IPAN.
In Darwin, that includes not just the permanent USA war base for the marine corps but also the indefinite basing of USAF assets at RAAF base Darwin, which is right in the middle of Darwin's suburbs increased incidence of USA navy ship visits and a larger role in joint training and wargames
so first lemme tell a little about Darwin
In one way, Darwin's really a big country town masquerading as a capital city, but in another way, we act as a service centre to a very wide geographical catchment, which means many more people depend on Darwin than live there.
I choose to live in Darwin because we still have great urban bushland, including beautiful coastal communities of mangroves and coral reefs, and when you really need to get away from snivilisation you don't have to travel far.
There's a bit of urban bushland pictured there, right in the middle of Darwin, just a few hundred metres from the airport where the RAAF base is co-located.
It's important to note that the growing USAF presence at our airport was not part of the 2011 Obama announcement.
By all accounts this significant variation to the new relationship was tacked on as an addendum, suggesting that the terms of the secret agreement between the two governments range far beyond what has been so far revealed.
These springs hold considerable cultural value to traditional owners (called the Larrakia), great heritage value to stolen generations who were interned nearby, and those white fella families whose connection to these springs goes back to the days when the roads went no further.
Locals are now concerned that unannounced construction for the US Air Force on the RAAF base is increasing flood waters, damaging the riparian zone and flooding nearby homes.
Politically, we don't have extemsove federal representation (we're not a state), but at a Territory level the political environment is now incredibly volatile and vulnerable (which many of us consider to be quite handy)
Our media environment is not particularly diverse: cuts, attrition and losses across other outlets have put a lot of power in the one murdoch-owned daily tabloid.
Darwin's economy has a tendency towards boom/bust cycles, and right now is going thru an unprecedented boom that is unlikely to ever repeat again. A massive oil and gas project is growing our economy by 15% pa. over the few years of construction. As a result, many of the immediate and short term impacts of the USA military buildup are masked, and community organisations that recognise social, economic and environmental impacts in their remit have other immediate priorities
Interestingly, that gas project, our latest economic saviour, is a large japanese company. And in 2012 we had Japanese participation in the 70th anniversary commemoration events for the bombing of darwin.
This shows that, with a bit of encouragement, we can see past the legacy of our WWII history to pragmatically handle present day relationships.
If you've been trying to understand recent developments in Darwin via national media, you've probably heard that Darwin is a military town. I think that's an oversimplification.
Darwin has clung to our WWII history, quite aware that until the recent lifting of state secrets, the rest of the country remained ignorant of the extent of the Japanese incursions. That is significant to how the city currently relates to USA forces: through that prism of our shared history.
But Darwin was never just a military town: Darwin has always had a character of its own, which includes but is not determined by the ever present military population.
Over the past ten years, particularly with the development of the Ghan railway, the number of ADF people in Darwin has increased, and so the presence of Aussie soldiers is more common and accepted. But movements of machinery, or large numbers of uniforms in and around town are rare and irregular.
The suggestion that because we're comfortable with the ADF component of our population, we will all just shrug at the unbounded and growing foreign military presence is just wishful thinking.
Another thing I really enjoy about living in Darwin is our cultural diversity.
I don't want to be misunderstood to be denying the fact that there's a lot of evidence of racism in the NT - but Darwin itself enjoys a diverse population that gets along pretty well (said the rich old white man).
Within that diversity there's a large Chinese population with history back to first contact, broad representation from our immediate regional neighbours, and of course many aboriginal australians – not just TOs and many others who've made darwin home but also the large numbers of countrymen who temporarily come to darwin for the services that they can't get where they live.
Darwin's diversity is important, because it goes to our capacity to welcome and accommodate newcomers. BaseWatch are convinced we want to socialise the visitors, as one tool for managing their impacts.
But our cultural diversity also goes to our sophistication and aspirations regarding regional relationships, and our connections to the experiences of neighbours with experience of USA war bases.
BaseWatch is a community organisation that formed out of faith based groups, greenies, residents action groups who have a history of lobbying against jet noise, sexual assault service providers and survivors, and old peace groups - particularly Darwin Residents Against War, whose activities included the country's largest per-capita mobilisation against the invasion of Iraq.
Actually the marches down in Katherine were impressive too, despite the town's RAAF presence. This tells me that the Territory has a strong tendency to peace, that can see beyond our own defence role.
BaseWatch initially identified a number of specific impacts:
heightened risk of being dragged into the next dumb big war
disruption of growing effective relationships with our regional neighbours
illegal weapons – including both the pseudo-endorsement of the USA's pervasive nuclear strategies, and the legal grey area regarding the presence of indiscriminate armaments such as DU, cluster munitions
social impacts, including increased risk of sexual assault, and
deterioration of democratic values - as we've seen in the logistical cooperation treaty review, and planning and public works processes for construction of new facilities for the Marines and US Air Force.
We soon recognised that while all these concerns are strongly held, we know we have friends and allies around the country to help address big picture implications and ramifications: we choose to prioritise taking responsibility for local social impacts.
And this is an area where we have some clear, defined proposals for better management of risk.
So, there we were in late November 2011, all five of us, with an old banner, when Obama came to Darwin and officially unveiled the announcement which had already been strategically leaked on Remembrance Day 11/11/11.
and there's our former PM.
The president's words were: “we're here to stay”. He spoke of “an enduring presence”. The Aussie leader's words can be read in detail, written all over her face. There you can read the full extent of scrutiny and discourse entered into by all our representatives at federal, territory and council level.
All our NT political reps have been MIA on this issue. A number who publicly gave loud welcomes, privately expressed grave concerns.
When the base was announced, local media uniformly indulged the pagentry of a presidential visit, with no space or time for exploring a range of community responses to the sudden huge, unexpected change to our town.
The newspaper degraded us all by printing its front page as a fold-out paper hat commemorating the occasion.
Our group's attempts to solicit paid classified ads to pre-announce a protest were refused by the paper, on the grounds that it would be disrespectful.
And in the years that have followed, we've had some limited success finding ways to open up space for critical discussion of the growing USA military presence, but nowhere near the success the USA have in running their own narrative unchallenged by pesky journalism.
The first two years saw small contingents of only around 200 marines on a clearly defined diplomatic mission, which was openly described as such.
This had them visiting childcare centres ...
… learning aussie rules, ...
… running 'boot camp' styled fitness programs in local primary schools (without the same working with children clearance required of any parent who might spend an hour a week listening to children reading. in fact the Marines don't even provide a list of names!)
Here they're planting a garden at a local indigenous sports organisation
oh and I like this one, In their first year, the visitors were sent to participate in two fun runs: this one, just before they left, was grueling, and I really felt bad for the poor fellas forced to run 20k in the hot sticky air of the tropical buildup
but the diplomatic missions didn't all go their way:
in 2012, the compounding presence of the Pitch Black joint training air exercises activated old networks of local residents groups who have a history of reacting against the noise of war planes.
in 2013, a ship visit of 2000 sailors from the Talisman Sabre war games saw an ugly aggravated rape, which is still before the courts in Darwin.
Neither directly relate to Marines, but these two impacts are a part of the growing foreign military presence, and in the course of the soft-start diplomatic phase have given locals pause for thought.
We've had two half-hearted attempts at social impact assessment, which have shown different degrees of institutional capture and scoping flaws.
The first concluded that increased sexual assault was the most significant risk to Darwin from the base. The next dared propose it was more likely that locals would rape marines. Neither gave due attention to the significant local history of sexual assaults on Darwin women by visiting USA forces.
Last year's rape goes directly to BaseWatch's priority demands for locally provided sexual assault prevention training that meets national standards, and a review of the Status of Forces Agreement – a 50 year old treaty that has failed us in the past, and needs to be reviewed in the context of this massive new development, to give all parties greater confidence that crimes committed by visiting forces will always be subject to Australian law.
We believe we have identified past instances in Darwin where deficiencies of the SOFA have allowed offenders to evade justice. We are alarmed to have been told by the USA Staff Advocate Justice that they will routinely request priority jurisdiction over any such crimes. While welcoming the Attorney General's rejection of that request last year, BW insist that the capacity for the Americans to even make such a request should be removed from the treaty.
We've found some value in our networks with colleagues in Okinawa, where sexual assault by the USA military occupiers remains an ongoing impact, and we will continue to prioritise attention to this growing risk.
We don't have a premier. Like Canberrians we have a chief minister, and right now it's Adam Giles. Or at least he was when I got on the plane. No, seriously, his job security is remarkably fragile following the mass resignation of remote aboriginal representatives that helped his party win power last election. They're now on the cross benches, his credibility is in tatters, and I haven't checked in to see whether he's survived another night.
Last year, he acknowledged that Territorians had been “left in the lurch” by silence from the federal government on this issue. He'd just learned that USAF assets would be permanently based at the RAAF base right in the middle of Darwin, and he was upset that the first he'd heard of it was via American media reports. “I can't tell you what they're doing here” he said - but then in the same breath went on to declare the USA military forces in the NT are a positive development that builds regional stability.
Here he is this month, when the bulk of the now 1200+ US marines arrived for their third rotation, which is the first to bring most of the hardware and machinery which they will permanently base in Darwin.
At this event he said: “The Marine deployment is evidence of the Territory’s growing strategic role in Australia’s defence, border protection and regional security policies,” “The deployment also enhances Northern Australia’s position as the staging post for the provision of international humanitarian and disaster relief in our region.
I'm not sure precisely which USA official wrote those lines, but just a few days after our chief read them out, the Solomon Islands suffered their worst floods in living memory.
Around 20 lives were lost, and 10 thousand were left homeless as entire communities were literally washed away.
As I'm sure you can imagine, the newly upgraded staging post for provision of international humanitarian and disaster relief sprung into action.
and here they are, conducting a photoshoot with local wildlife.
We're being fed nonsense about the rationale for the USA presence in our town.
Just as obvious as the lines about humanitarian assistance, the reference to our 'growing strategic role' is empty rhetoric, as Nick Deane wrote online recently in IA, Independent Australia : "In the absence of any strategic justification for the presence of the US marines in Darwin, it is very arguable that there is a significant strategic cost to Australia, but no benefit whatsoever."
Thanks to Denis and Hannah who were on the ball, and wrote a form letter to our chief that I encourage you all to sign.
On that note, I want to thank IPAN who are an invaluable resource to those of us in Darwin who are addressing the immediate local issues of the USA military presence.
I hope to speak with as many of you as possible in the course of this week's convergence