Saturday 25 June 2011

'Dialogue' for Perth in August: time for the Greens to get off the fence

Perth in August, and who’s that who’ll be sneaking into town? Why the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the annual secret gathering of politicians (former and current) public servants, business leaders, academics, journalists and other worthies that has become one of the most significant “private” foreign policy bodies, providing a discursive and cultural underpinning for the US-Australia Alliance.

The Dialogue will be meeting at the Stirling naval base south of Perth and in Perth itself (at a venue not yet publicised) in the second week of August. It tries to operate out of the limelight and you will find no details of this upcoming meeting on its website where past meetings are only recorded by brief notation. The organisations founder, former business and NGO entrepreneur, Phil Scanlan, has proudly boasted about the ability of the Dialogue to keep its deliberations secret in accordance with the “Chatham House Rules” format.

Scanlan, appointed by the Rudd Labor government to the plum post of Australian Consul-General in New York, in 2009, initiated the Dialogue after conversations with US President George H W Bush during his 1992 visit to Australia. It alternates its annual meetings between the US and Australia. There is also a related West Coast Leadership Dialogue, providing a Pacific focus and sponsored by Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, as well as a Young Leadership Dialogue which also meets annually in the US and Australia by turn. The last Young Leadership Dialogue was held in Canberra in May. It was addressed by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot, with Abbott’s comments about refugees seeking out Australia’s “Anglo” values leaked, apparently breaching the Dialogue’s impregnable wall of silence.

To understand the significance of the Dialogue in Australia’s diplomatic and security set-up we can turn to the recent comments of one of its participants and boosters, The Australian’s Paul Kelly.

The 9/11 decade has seen a truly dramatic deepening of the Australian-American alliance and personal concord. The furious domestic splits over the Iraq war and public rage towards George W. Bush are washed away with little cultural or strategic downside while Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard compete to be as pro-American as John Howard. Who would have believed?

At home, the Left was the big political loser from this decade. With Barack Obama in the White House, Labor has rarely been more pro-American as Gillard helps with Obama's war in Afghanistan and tells America it can still be great. The once notorious anti-American Labor Left is broken and silent. Through the decade, Australia's institutional bonds with the US surged with a free trade agreement, closer intelligence links, tighter military ties and stronger private networks typified by the US Studies Centre, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and the Lowy Institute, let alone Rudd's addiction to kissing Hillary Clinton.

The worry in Australian politics is that the Greens may also be drawn into this post-9/11 silence when it comes to confronting the truths of the US-Australia Alliance. The ambivalence of Greens policies in this regard, and the remarkable refusal of its federal parliamentarians to criticize the Alliance during last-year’s Afghan War debate, are disturbing signs. Indeed it is not inconceivable that Green politicians have been, or may be, invited to participate in the Dialogue. They should certainly tell the Green membership if this is the case. If any have been approached, one can only hope they said no.

Kelly’s defence of the Dialogue points to one of its most alarming aspects, its duchessing of the Australian media. Dialogue critics Antony Loewenstein and Scott Burchill have highlighted the effects of participation of journalists in these meetings as part of their critiques of the wider failures of the media when it comes to critical reporting on the relationships between Australia and the US, and Israel. Foreign editors of the Murdoch and Fairfax press and former ABC journalist and MP Maxine McKew, have been participants in the Dialogue and last year, Chris Uhlmann, now co-host of the 7.30 Report, travelled to Israel with Fairfax and News journalists, and politicians from the major parties, at the invitation of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, a pro-Israel body modelled the Dialogue. The ABC apparently relaxed its rules to allow Uhlmann to attend and It would be interesting to know if ABC journalists are going to attend the Perth gathering, Key Fairfax and News journalists will no doubt line up again.

This unprofessional and unethical behaviour is something that the journalism profession, and their union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, needs to take up. This issue also needs to be confronted by academics, and the National Tertiary Education Union. Some academics are also Dialogue participants and the event has been hosted at universities. Secretive forums such as this is are in contravention of the openness of research and debate that is supposed to be at the heart of a university’s function.

But the Dialogue needs to be opposed on a more fundamental level as re-enforcing a relationship with the US that is essentially aimed at tying Australia to US military, economic and cultural imperialism. The Perth meeting may present opportunities for protest by antiwar activists and Western Australia has a good history in this regard. It is also an opportunity for protests by BDS campaigners given the close relationship between the Australia-US Alliance and support by both countries for Israel.

Hopefully the WA Greens would be to the fore in this. Nationally the Greens have an important role here and need to overcome their ambiguities over the US-Australia Alliance. As mentioned, these ambiguities are reflected in their policies, which are, in some ways, implicitly hostile to the Alliance, without explicitly saying so. They were also reflected in the parliamentary Afghan War debate where the Australian and US assumptions justifying military operations were challenged, but the Alliance itself not criticised.

With new Green Senators coming into office, the national parliamentary group needs to start probing the relationship between the major parties and the Dialogue, and the expenditure of public money involved in supporting this “:private” diplomatic initiative (hosting it at a naval base for example). The privacy of these types of initiatives is a furphy. The Dialogue is part a back-door means of carrying on diplomatic and security business beyond the normal scope of public accountability (difficult enough through official institutions, as the recent Wikileaks debate has shown). There is a parallel between “private” institutions like the Dialogue and the growth or private security and para-military organisations like Xe (Blackwater).

But over and above this the Greens to get off the fence, and come out clearly and publicly in opposition to the US-Australia Alliance. Confronting and criticising the role of Australian American Leadership Dialogue, and its secretive Perth deliberations, is a good starting point.

Saturday 11 June 2011

More deaths in Afghanistan - the Greens must confront Australia's war culture

The Greens attempt to challenge Australia’s Afghan war policy in parliament last year has by and large sunk without trace. In spite of recent polls showing overwhelming public opposition, Australia’s Afghan commitment rolls on, with the recent deaths of more Australian soldiers. And the war continues to claim the lives of Afghan civilians.
For the major “war” parties, and the military, political and media elites who support Australia’s war culture, it has been “as you were” since the parliamentary debate. For the Greens the debate reached an inevitable dead-end, based as it was around the limited argument that only parliament should approve foreign troop deployments. With the major parties supporting the Afghan commitment such a vote would make no difference to the current situation. While the recent military deaths has seen the Greens national parliamentary leadership renew calls for Australian troop withdrawals, a new, more assertive, strategy is called for.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her 2010 Christmas message remembered those Australian troops killed during 2010, - “they died for us” - and this sentiment has been re-enforced through the passing of another ANZAC Day, and the positive spin it places on the notion of “sacrifice”. But as playwright Alan Bennett put it in The History Boys, memorialising war is about forgetting its truths: “it's not lest we forget, it's lest we remember”. So what are the Greens to do in the face of the national amnesia underpinning Australia’s war culture?
Firstly they need to overcome their own timidity, reflected in an Afghan war debate in which no criticism was made of the Australia-US alliance, a crucial part of the war culture, and in which some Green MPs, in spite of their criticisms of the war, felt the need to fall in and march to an unqualified “we support out troops” cadence. This begs the question, support the troops doing what? The answer to this requires a little more historical depth and political courage. The Greens need to confront the war culture head on.
A starting point is to challenge Prime Minister Gillard’s assertion that troops killed in Afghanistan “died for us” and point out that in reality they have been sacrificed in the “national interest” of keeping the US on side in the US-Australia alliance, and that their names have been added to the more than 100,000 Australians killed in war in the past century, overwhelmingly lives thrown away in the interests of our British and American “great and powerful friends”. It is difficult to say this in the face of the grief felt by families of recently killed Australian troops but it has to be said. The sacrifice of tens of thousands of Australians in wars has not been noble. It has not been for “freedom” or for “us”. It has been a tragic waste. It is a sad reflection on Australia’s war culture that old soldiers from the great wars of the twentieth century, in their final years, have often lamented the futility of war, while young thrill-seekers continued to line up at the barracks gate.
While soldiers may have fought bravely and committed heroic deeds, fighting for their lives and looking out for each other, their deaths, and the, physical and psychological maiming of thousands more, has not been heroic but tragic. And we should particularly remember the lives lost in countries in which the Australian military forces have fought – the hundreds of thousands who have died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their deaths remain unmourned, and the responsibility that Australian governments, military leaders, and ordinary soldiers, must to one degree or another bear for the role they have played in their deaths, has gone unacknowledged.
Even the Second World War, often seen as the “good war” because of its confrontation with fascism and the (only) direct threat to, and attacks, on Australia, had bad origins. These lay in the unfinished business of a disastrous post-World War One “Peace” Treaty; and the rivalry in the Pacific between the new empires of Japan and the US and the decaying colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands. Australians were justifiably fighting to defend their country and oppose Japanese imperialism, as well as participate in the wider struggle against fascism. But their sacrifices were soon betrayed, as old empires were re-installed in Asia, laying the foundation for new wars, and a new waste of lives.
Australian historians debate the contested meanings of the ANZAC legends, and the recent upsurge in commemoration and remembrance at Gallipoli, the Western Front, and on the Kokoda track. It is by no means certain that young people in particular come away from these events uncritically supporting Australia’s participation in the wars of empire. But there is no doubt that the War Party: the pro-war leaderships of Australia’s two major governing party blocs and their attendant war machine, seeks to use these public commemorations to reinforce a positive view of Australia’s war culture, linked in to a populist “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” nationalism, and overlaid with hypocritical and mawkish official expressions of sorrow for the lives of the fallen.
For the Greens, taking on this war culture will not be easy. Green policy already lays the foundation for this with its support for “the right of ADF personnel to conscientiously object to particular military actions”. But this needs to be more than a clause slumbering away on the Greens national policy manifesto. Federal Green MPs need to start publicly asserting this as both the right, and duty, of Australian military personnel. For example the Greens could encourage Australian troops to stay in their bases (defend themselves if they have to) and refuse to go out on patrols or other activities until the government brings them home. This goes to the heart of opposing the war culture of uncritical service to military alliances, challenging Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere to accept a degree of moral responsibility for choosing to fight or not.
This is a complex question. Australian soldiers serve in the armed forces under threat of draconian disciplinary punishments. Equally complex are the reasons why young people choose to sign up to be part of the military, ranging from patriotism and military careerism through to na├»ve adventurism and economic conscription. So Greens need to be understanding of the pressures placed upon serving personnel. Responsibility for Australia’s war policy and culture ultimately lies with those at the top – the political and military leaderships. Nonetheless soldiers need to reflect on their own situation. This particularly applies to those serving in the special forces units, the aggressive arm of the military that is most implicated in civilian deaths and potentially in war crimes and human rights abuses. Let’s face it; you don’t get to be in the special forces unless you really want to be there.
Thus the statement that we must “support the troops” needs to be qualified. Yes support them in the circumstances where they find they have little choice but to obey their superiors. Yes support them if they suffer injury, physical or mental, as a result of their war service. Yes support them by demanding that they be brought home to their loved ones, and yes support them, most particularly, if they choose to conscientiously object to their war service. But we also need to make clear that this is not support for the war in which they fight, not for any re-writing of history to justify a sacrifice in lives as part of a disastrous war culture, and in the service of empire, and not for actions by soldiers that put Afghan civilians at risk and violate human rights.

Green Fear - staying out of the 'no-go zone' of Australia-US-Israel relations

This piece appeared as a guest post on Left_Flank. You can check it, and the Left_Flank blog, out here:

Here is the text:

Marrickville Council may have backed off supporting the Israel BDS campaign but by highlighting the plight of the Palestinians, the Council’s initiative in this area, and the pro-BDS stance of the NSW Greens, has ensured that this will only be the beginning of the debate, not least of all within the Greens themselves. The Australian Greens may pride themselves on confronting the “inconvenient truths” of climate change but when it comes to exposing the inconvenient truths of the plight of the Palestinian people (as the BDS campaign does), some in the party are ducking for cover.

Led by elements in the Victorian Greens and the national Green leadership, the move is on to force NSW Greens to back away from its BDS policy. There are those who genuinely feel the BDS campaign is counterproductive, imperilling the achievement of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, those who are afraid the issue will divide the party, and at its most basic level, those who fear a loss of votes. For many in the party, the BDS campaign is trouble, and that is enough. The Victorian Greens are trying to limit the debate to the question of process – the extent to which NSW is out of step with national policy and decisions. There is resistance to discussing the merit of the BDS issue itself.

But the Great Fear emerging among some in the Greens is wider than the BDS. It is the fear of the political cost involved in breaching the “separation wall” and entering the “no-go zone” established by the major political parties, the defence and foreign policy establishments, and elements in the mainstream media. That no-go zone is any attempt at realistic or insightful criticism, or analysis, of the Alliance between Australia and its best mate Uncle Sam, and as part of that deal, any principled criticism of the actions of Uncle Sam’s best mate, Israel.

The demonstration of this lies not just with the inner-party reaction to BDS but the Afghan War debate in parliament last year. That five Green senators and one Green MHR could get up in the parliament and not criticise the Australia-US alliance, the whole reason Australia is in Afghanistan, was somewhat bizarre.[i] Notwithstanding some good political points made in the speeches, this was akin to holding a debate about global warming and not mentioning carbon. The speeches in some respects were not at odds with continuing support for the US Alliance, with the Iraq and Afghan wars, like Vietnam before them, seen as “mistakes” imperilling the alliance’s effectiveness.

To understand what the Greens are up against, we need an appreciation of the entrenched nature of the Australia-US-Israel relationship, which has protected it from critical analysis in Australian politics and sections of the mainstream media. Historian Peter Edwards has pointed out that the Australia-US alliance “has become a political institution in its own right comparable with a political party or the monarchy”[ii]. It has certainly become a part of Canberra’s constitutional landscape, with Australia’s military-intelligence complex clustering around the Australia-American memorial at Russell and holding down one of the points of the parliamentary triangle.

Following US policy in privileging Israel in its conflict with Palestinians is part of this architecture. This was demonstrated by the Australian government falling into line and helping the blocking in the UN of the Goldstone Report on the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza, an egregious act in no way justified by Goldstone’s recent reservations, repudiated by his report’s co-authors.[iii] And this stance was earlier demonstrated by Australia’s official response at the time of the Gaza assault, by then Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which singled out Hamas for criticism but made no comment on the disproportionate use of force by Israel.[iv] To Gillard and the Labor government, following the US on Gaza meant accepting Uncle Sam’s realpolitik, and underlying racial prejudice: a Palestinian life is not worth that of an Israeli. And of course not a peep out of the Australian government when the US recently used its veto to protect Israel from criticism in the UN Security Council over West Bank settlement expansion.

Support for both the US Alliance, and the US’s pro-Israel stance, is reinforced by Australian participation in the closed door, “Chatham House Rules”-based Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and Australia-Israel Leadership Forum.[v] Participation of politicians past and present in these secretive dialogues, aimed at providing discursive and cultural support for US foreign policy, and for Israel, is predictable. But it is shameful that Australian academics and journalists participate in contradiction with the ethics of transparency and open debate that are supposed to be at the core of their professions.

The McCarthyite campaign of ignorance and vilification, directed at NSW Greens over the non-violent BDS campaign, shows the fate that awaits those who seek to breach this “separation wall”, and for some the Greens, seeking to enter the no-go zone has too high a political cost. But there are those in the Greens, in NSW in particular, who are unlikely to back down, as demonstrated in Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne’s courageous, dignified and principled stance, along with two Green councillors, in resisting her council’s retraction of support for BDS.

The “blue” within the Greens is just beginning, but the Palestinians are unlikely to wait for the Australian Greens or anybody else to decide what’s good for them. The remarkable Arab Awakening is influencing the Palestinian territories, most recently in pushing Hamas and Fatah into some sort of agreement. It is unlikely to stop there, promising a new popular uprising against Israeli occupation and blockade. This may spread to the Palestinian population within Israel itself, and who knows, maybe also to those non-Arab Israelis who are resisting what Israeli academic, and BDS supporter, Neve Gordon has labelled the “proto-fascist mindset” of the Israeli government.[vi] Indeed it could even begin within Israel. If and when this uprising comes, it is likely to be a game-changer.


[ii] Peter Edwards, “Permanent Friends: Historical reflections on the Australian-American Alliance”, Lowy Institute, 2005:

[iii] “Authors reject Goldstone rejection remarks”;

[iv] Media Release, Acting Prime Minister; and “Julia Gillard refuses to Condemn Israeli Attacks”;


[vi] “BDS campaign wants Israel to abide by international law”;