COMMENT by RUSSELL GOLDFLAM
I am on a plane to Perth, to visit my father. He turned 89 the other day. That in itself is something of a miracle given that when he was still a child almost his entire extended family was murdered: my dad, his parents and his little sister got out of Germany in the nick of time and somehow made it by boat to Western Australia.
Consequently, I grew up in the shadow of annihilation, not that we talked about it much. But still. When I got to my teens the Australian Government started a grotesque lottery, the 19 year old winners of which got shipped off to kill foreign Communists.
The reason we needed to kill these foreign Communists eluded me. Moreover, having been forced to join the cadets at school and lug a .303 around the footy field had been bad enough, and the prospect of crawling through a jungle while being shot at by an unseen enemy scared the shit out of me.
When I studied history and politics at university in Perth, I discovered that the Vietnam War wasn’t merely unnecessary, unjust and unwinnable: it was also criminal and insane. I decided that even if my number came up, I was not going. Fortunately, however, a few months before my 19th birthday it was time, and Gough got in and abolished the draft.
As I take off on this flight to see my dad, Pine Gap’s nest of spider-eggs comes into view. When it was commissioned in 1969, I was in my last year at school. Over the next decade, what with the Vietnam moratorium campaign and women’s liberation and the land rights movement and the sexual revolution and various other distractions, I was only dimly aware, if at all, of Pine Gap’s existence.
But then, in 1981, I came to live in Alice Springs. My new boss was Yami Lester, the Director of the Institute for Aboriginal Development. I’d never had a Yankunyjatjara boss before. Indeed, I’d only ever met a handful of Aboriginal people.
I hadn’t had a blind boss before either, not that this seemed to limit Yami. Yami opened my eyes. He took me to places of haunting beauty on his country adjacent to the lands that had been so casually contaminated by the black Maralinga mist, which he told me had cost him his sight.
My flight to Perth skirts the northern fringe of Yami’s country, and so joins for me the dots of Pine Gap, Maralinga and Perth, from where I’d escaped conscription and to where my father had found refuge from the holocaust.
The month before I arrived in Alice and met Yami Lester, a small group of locals had organised the first protest against Pine Gap, out of which was formed the Alice Springs Peace Group.
And so within weeks of settling into my new job and my new community, I gravitated into the peace movement. In 1983 I helped support the first mass protest against Pine Gap, the Women For Survival camp inspired by their sisters’ actions at Greenham Common. That put Pine Gap onto the national political map.
The Alice Springs Peace Group grew in size and influence. We were a founding member of the National Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition, which in its heyday boasted over a hundred affiliated organisations. Our most ambitious event was a protest camp-cum-conference exactly thirty years ago, in October 1987, at which we assembled activists from all over the Indian-Pacific region to share their stories of struggle. Hundreds of us got ourselves arrested climbing over the Pine Gap perimeter fence.
In those days an Alice Springs Peace Group rally would attract over 400 locals, a remarkable number for a town of about 20,000. But despite – or perhaps because of – our creativity and our youth and our passion, in some quarters we were loathed. Conservative politicians (and all the elected politicians in Alice Springs were conservatives back then) dismissed us as dole-bludgers and hippies and Communists and malodorous trouble-makers.
Their primary objective, I suppose, was to demonise and marginalise us, to prevent us from being taken seriously, to minimise the chance that people would sit up and take notice.
And I have to say that our opponents were largely successful. As the threat of imminent nuclear catastrophe receded following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, popular support for the peace movement in Alice Springs, across Australia and indeed world-wide dwindled.
The superpowers reduced their deadly stockpiles from 60,000 nuclear warheads to a mere 15,000. (Of course, even one such weapon may have the capacity to inflict mass destruction, killing millions, and rendering entire regions uninhabitable for aeons.) The Alice Springs Peace Group Inc. wound up in the early 1990s, although various other groups have continued to carry on the good work of waging peace in Alice Springs.
One such group, and an indefatigable ally of the Alice Springs Peace Group in the 1980s, is the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), which in turn is part of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).
Given that they are sworn to alleviate suffering, it is unsurprising that so many doctors have a deep commitment to the peace movement. In 2007, a group of Melbourne MAPW members, together with a handful of other strategically-minded and deep-thinking peace activists, including some I had got to know through their involvement in the 1980s Pine Gap protests, came up with a new approach to the core issue of nuclear disarmament.
The problem was that the members of the “Nuclear Club” had slowed, stymied and all but stopped the progress towards disarmament made after the Cold War. It was apparent that they were keen to keep the Club closed, but had no intention of shutting it down.
In the meantime, however, there had been great success in galvanising world opinion and diplomatic activity to abolish other abhorrent forms of warfare, namely biological weapons, chemical weapons and land mines. And so these rather modest and moderate Melbourne men and women decided to call for a new international campaign using the model of the then very recently successful movement to abolish land mines.
To that end they set up ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. ICAN’s premise, and its promise, are disarmingly simple: stop fiddling around with technical arguments about how many nuclear weapons it’s OK to have, and how powerful they’re allowed to be, and what delivery systems are permissible.
Just make them illegal. All of them: outlaw nuclear war. And, as ethical, elegant, simple ideas sometimes do, this one caught on. In July this year, ICAN’s quiet work was rewarded when the UN held a signing ceremony for the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 122 countries supported it.
It already has almost enough signatories to be ratified. Predictably, none of the members of the Nuclear Club, now numbering nine, showed up. Shamefully, neither did Australia. It seems that the realpolitik of the US/Australian military alliance and our intractable entanglement – pre-eminently by way of Pine Gap – in the US warfighting machine, dictate that our nation turn its back on the most important initiative to avert nuclear catastrophe the world has seen in a generation.
Not only that, but the apron-strings we’ve tied ourselves to are now being pulled by a leader who has amped up the bellicose rhetoric, and reportedly wants to ramp up the US nuclear arsenal by 10 times. Whether that’s fake news or not, there is no doubt Trump is dragging his nation – and ours – perilously closer to the abyss of the unthinkable.
And then, just the other day, what did little ICAN do? It won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Prize.
Oh my. The Australian Government of course, given its embarrassing stand against the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, could hardly be expected to congratulate ICAN, let alone its founding heroes, that little mob in Melbourne. And the Australian Government didn’t. No keys to the city. No civic receptions. No honours. No glory. No words of praise. But I can, ICAN. You bloody beauties!
From the spider-eggs of Pine Gap, past the black mist of Maralinga, to my memories of Perth and all the way back to the ashes of the holocaust from which my old dad escaped, let’s join the dots, because the dots tell us a story and teach us a lesson. Lest we forget. Never again.
Pine Gap and the Nobel prize the Oz government ignores
COMMENT by RUSSELL GOLDFLAM