By ERWIN CHLANDA
The anti Pine Gap rally, conference and public forum wrapped up yesterday after four days of being noticed but studiously ignored.
This is surprising because two senators of the Australian Parliament were here demanding that the military base be closed, and at least three academics supported that view at a public forum, including Professor Richard Tanter from Melbourne University.
Making an enquiry about Pine Gap is a journalistic investigation quite unlike most: Usually in Australia you can ask questions and get answers and comment, and you can check your facts with the subject of your investigation. But the base is strictly zip-the-lip. One needs to work with secondary sources, such as the US Congressional record, which fortunately is quite revealing – unlike similar Australian sources.
Rather than rubbing up against characteristic Australian scepticism and democratic spirit, that attitude is spreading. A remarkable circumstance locally was that at the forum held at the Chifley on Friday evening, the sunset gathering atop Anzac Hill on Saturday, and a rally outside the gates to the base yesterday morning – all open to the public – there was no sign of currently serving members of the Legislative Assembly, nor the town council, nor any of the main lobbies for commerce and tourism in town. The leaders of Alice Springs have their head firmly stuck in the sand.
This is a worry considering that Pine Gap could be a nuclear target – increasingly plausible given its escalating role in US military action around the world – and if this were to eventuate, this town would be annihilated. It’s been a well documented discussion point since the mid-seventies.
Put simply, because there hasn’t been a nuclear conflagration since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, history permits us to look at the Cold War in this way: There were always two blokes, one in Washington and one in Moscow, each with a red telephone, and they knew each other pretty well.
“Feel like having a nuclear war?” “Nah, let’s have a vodka” – words to the effect.
Different story today when a nuke can fit into a suitcase: Whom do you ring amongst the scum that makes up ISIS? What’s his name? What’s his number?
What Pine Gap can do to keep tabs on that scourge was regrettably not examined by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network functions last week.
Senator Lee Rhiannon (at left, outside Pine Gap) told the crowd of about 80: “US people are welcome here. We want to work with people from around the world. But not where there are bases with such destructive agendas.
“The nuclear war agenda was run out of this place. Now that the drones are being directed from here is something we must inform all Australians.”
The organisers focussed on that transformation of the base, along the way prying into the private lives of billions of people under the banner of protection through global surveillance.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam (top right, speaking at the base gate yesterday) on Friday gave a brilliant and scathing account of the democracy we live in, where matters of life and death are dealt with not by Federal Parliament, but by the executive and a handful officials.
We pressed him further on these issues outside the Pine Gap gates. He said: “Whether it’s defence, any kind of treaty making agreement, any of these large scale instruments that sign us up to large scale obligations, the Parliament doesn’t get a look-in until after the deal is already done.”
NEWS: If you know they are working on something why don’t you ask them, what are you doing?
LUDLAM: In a lot of instances Parliament doesn’t know what’s going on. I don’t claim to know. I have access to any of the open source material as anyone else. [In some cases] it’s known that something is happening. We’ve known, for example, that the Transpacific Partnership has been under negotiation for years, but the only reason we know what’s in any of the drafts is because certain chapters have been leaked to the Wikileaks website. There is certainly no Parliamentary oversight that’s in play until after the deal is done.
NEWS: What if you tell the Prime Minister you want a briefing?
LUDLAM: If it’s defence related stuff sometimes they turn us down, sometimes they’ll say we’ll brief you, but it’s going to be confidential and you can’t use this information. That undermines our role as Members of Parliament. The public doesn’t get to hear it.
Senator Ludlam says he was on a committee that was given “a very brief tour” of Pine Gap in 2009 or 2010 “but they are obviously very careful what they tell people”.
When it comes to Pine Gap the debate in Alice Springs is mostly confined to real estate prices and the spending in supermarkets, and what a nice guy that Yank is you’re playing golf with on the weekend.
It’s been like that since the base was built half a century ago.
A section of the population is clearly aware of their inadequate knowledge of the base. They try to cover their refusal to inform themselves more thoroughly (all for the sake of a few dollars) with a degree of hatred for the protest community that is quite out of character for the town.
They can’t see that these peaceniks enjoy each others’ company, are having a good time together, not at all unlike our Finke mob or girls playing netball.
I’ve covered the Pine Gap protests as a journalist since the mid 70s and bumped into a few old acquaintances again.
Apart from – obviously – being a few decades older (like me), they are wiser in their understanding of the politics of killing and its technology, and of the use of media, including the “social” variety, to their advantage.
Dressing up, singing, camping, making banners together and all that is not a bad way to spend a week, especially given the conviction that they are doing something to make the world a better place.
The average age of the 100 or so on the protest circuit is now much higher – there is far less young talent these days.
The way the cops have been dealing with the events was clearly guided by knowledge that media coverage follows arrests on camera. There were none, and consequently there was scarcely any media coverage.
The exception were the five who entered base land but whose case was thrown out of court because the Federal police didn’t understand the legislation they were acting under.
The police media section puts out releases when someone gets caught with less than a kilo of dope (856 grams on September 21, for example), or someone slips his tracing anklet and wags going back to the alcohol rehab centre on time.
But although the protesters appear to have committed several offences (defacing signs, “occupying” Senator Scullion’s office, chaining themselves to the gates of an industrial property linked to the base) there was not a single media release.
Yesterday morning, way past the sign on Hatt Road saying “Go Back,” the police had set up a road block and politely asked people to submit themselves to searches for things like knives or scissors.
They were then allowed to proceed on foot to the gate, the traditional place for the protests.
Alongside the sign “No Photographs” (at pain of huge fines), cameras and mobile phones were clicking away merrily.
Just a tape marked the final line and it was mostly respected. The three protesters taunting the police looked pretty stupid when the cops just maintained their poker faces.
Senior Sergeant Denis Ken accepted an envelope containing a peppercorn from Aboriginal spokesman Kevin Buzacott (photo above, right) whom I first got to know during another protest, against the Todd River dam, more than 20 years ago.
Officer Ken undertook to pass on this “rent” to the Pine Gap bosses.
The biggest surprise perhaps was a trouble-free takeover by the protesters of Anzac Hill at sunset on Saturday. They used the central platform as their stage, holding an Aboriginal flag up in front of the obelisk in memory of the Frontier Wars, and tied to the low fence peace flags and lanterns.
The sacred site for the RSL and war veterans became a staging point for a political and social philosophy that couldn’t be more opposite.
And yet there was no blood in the streets. Was Alice Springs acknowledging its diversity?
Or is it just a different way of keeping the lid on a Pine Gap debate that really the town should have.
“Peace Pilgrim” Paul Christie (pictured) from Cairns has been arrested after entering the Pine Gap Defence Facility this morning, according to a spokeswoman for the protest.
She says he is due to appear in the Local Court at 2pm.
When asked for the town council’s policy on Pine Gap Mayor Damien Ryan emailed the link to the text on the council’s website which says this:-
“The purpose of this policy is to state Council’s position in respect of the continued presence of the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap.
“Council supports the retention of the Australian/American Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, and acknowledges the importance of this Facility for the defence of Australian territory and for the economic and social benefit of Alice Springs.”
UPDATE 10:45am on October 4:
Charges against Paul Christie were dropped.