MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – Pine Gap Defence Facility

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.40 p.m.)—by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I will not speak at length, but we do not get ministerial statements quite so often in this place these days. On as important an issue as the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, I thought it would be appropriate to make a few comments. No doubt there was a response to it in the other place, but I would like to put the Democrats’ views on the record.

The ministerial statement gives a general overview of the role of the Pine Gap defence facility, which has been in operation for 40 years, so this is a bit of a 40th anniversary statement. It sets out the government’s view in fairly straightforward and uncontroversial fashion. I would like to make one or two general comments and a specific comment in regard to it.

There is no doubt that the Pine Gap defence facility plays a significant role in Australia’s defence activities. There is also no doubt that it has been quite controversial and remains controversial to some degree. The level of controversy to some extent depends on the nature of Australia’s defence policy, having regard specifically to what happens at the facility. There is a change in the nature of some of the work that is done there, and a change to the importance of it in the changed international security environment, particularly post 2001. That is something that I recognise, but some of the concerns about the facility remain fairly similar. In previous decades there was a lot of concern about it being a nuclear target. I do not see any reason why that concern would have disappeared. That is acknowledged in the minister’s statement.

There is also the wider issue of what the facility is used for. Speaking individually, I am not a pacifist. I recognise the role of the Defence Force. For me, it is about making sure that the Defence Force is used for genuine defence purposes. That can include intelligence gathering, of course, but it should not be used to facilitate acts of aggression. Certainly, that is behind my concern in regard to the uses of this facility in the current international environment and in regard to the federal government’s current defence policy.

There is a new political correctness abroad in the land: any time one expresses concern about Australia’s military policies being intertwined with the current military agenda of the US administration, you are told that you are anti-American or anti the US alliance. I have been on the record a number of times, going back many years, as not being against having a cooperative relationship with the United States, but I do think we need to retain sufficient independence so that we are not so intertwined with the US that, when they embark on unwise acts of military aggression, we are fundamentally linked with those acts and their ongoing operation. That is where we are at at the moment. There is not much doubt that Pine Gap is used in part for that role, and that is a very valid reason why people continue to express concern about it.

The only other point I would make in regard to the ministerial statement is that it does note in passing that the government is quite comfortable with the continuing role of Pine Gap and the way it operates. As far as I am aware, the opposition is similarly perfectly comfortable with it. The ministerial statement acknowledges in passing that that is not a universal view amongst the community; that there remain some concerns amongst people in the community. The ministerial statement says that, while the government does not share those views, those views are respected. I am not convinced that those views are respected, and I am particularly concerned about the continuing actions of the Attorney-General in targeting some non-violent protesters who sought to make their views known via entering the Pine Gap facility as a way of conducting a non-violent protest.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the views of the protesters, or even whether or not you agree with their methods, the sledgehammer approach of the Attorney-General in response to their clearly non-violent action is beyond dispute. The history and record of those protesters over many years has been of the sorts of clearly non-violent protests that lots of people do not particularly like but which are clearly not violent security threats.

The Attorney-General made the decision to use the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act for the first time ever—a Cold War piece of legislation that had never been used even during the Cold War—to charge these protesters. All of the other times people had trespassed at Pine Gap they had been charged under trespassing offences and gone through the courts that way. I do not have a problem with that. People almost always go into these actions with their eyes open, and there is no doubt that the people on this occasion acted with their eyes open, including being aware that there is always the potential for a government to try to use them as a political example. However, I think it is completely unjustifiable for the Attorney-General to have made the specific, political, individual decision to use this extremely heavy-handed piece of legislation that was obviously meant to be used for international spies or people who are genuinely attempting to create major security hazards. I think it is a disgrace to use it on non-violent peace protesters. What is even more disgraceful is that, having done so, the government then employed an army of QCs to ensure that the defence of protesters was as limited as possible and that there was very little opportunity for them to get the totality of their defence and their justifications on the public record or accepted in court.

Those people were thus, almost unavoidably, found guilty by a jury. The judge then produced a sentence. Clearly the judge did not have a precedent to use in determining a sentence because no-one has ever been charged under the act before. The judge in this case weighed up the intent of the actions, the extent of the risk or lack thereof to public safety and security, the motivation of the protesters and a range of other factors and brought down a fine. The key issue with the use of the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act is that it has the potential for a very extreme jail sentence. I cannot off the top of my head remember exactly what it is. I have 15 years in my head, but it may be seven years; I am not sure. Either way, the decision of the Attorney-General not to charge them with trespassing but to charge them under that act specifically introduced the prospect of many years jail for a very simple act of civil disobedience and non-violent protest.

A particular disgrace is not only the use of that act but that, after the sentence was brought down, the government and the Attorney-General once again came through with a sledgehammer. They are using taxpayers’ funds to launch an appeal against the sentence. I think that is not only an excessive abuse of government power but a deliberate act of intimidation not just against those protesters but against anybody who seeks to express concern about this government’s defence policy, military policy and foreign policy in regard to the use of our defence forces.

I do not believe the government and the minister can credibly say, as they have in this statement, that they have respect for people who have different views to them about the Pine Gap facility. My views about the Pine Gap facility are not the same as those of the protesters who were arrested and convicted, but I certainly do not have any problem with either their right to protest or their method of protest. I do have a real problem with the use of that sort of legislation for a purpose that it clearly was not intended for and with large amounts of taxpayers’ funds being used to persecute and pursue peace protesters rather than to protect and improve the safety of Australians.

Question agreed to.

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