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  • Writer's pictureBronwyn Kelly

Australians value peace not war.

The guiding principles for reform of defence legislation run counter to the values of Australians

Australia’s Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite, has recently completed a consultation program about proposed reforms of Defence legislation. Submissions on the consultation paper have closed but before decisions are made about the reforms it is worth commenting on the principles being used by the Defence Department to finalise the reforms because these principles do not align with the values of Australians.

Australian politicians delight in asserting that they are standing up for “our values”. Most recently Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong at the National Press Club made the case that

our foreign policy must be an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests – of who we are and what we want. … Our focus must be on what we need to do so we can live according to our own laws and values, determined by our own citizens.

It’s hard to imagine any Australian disagreeing with this but as yet no politician has taken the trouble to ask Australians what they actually value. Nor has there been any effort to design a community engagement program where Australians can be given an open, inclusive and politically neutral space to “determine” their national values and provide them as guidance to parliaments when they are considering laws that will support our strategic interests in our region of the world. What values is Wong speaking of? Who knows?

Doubtless Wong would assert that in a representative democracy it is elected parliaments and executive governments that are licensed by the electoral system to determine our values on our behalf. She would perhaps assert that this equates to a citizens’ determination. This might be a defensible argument if she actually said what those values were. But when politicians speak about Australian values they rarely, if ever, state what they are assuming.

If pressed it is likely that some might trot out “democracy” or “equal opportunity” or the “fair go” as our core values. Lately, some in the Labor Party have begun to spruik “inclusion”. But political discourse does not venture much beyond that. Wong herself goes no further towards painting the picture of what we value than that we want to be “pursuing our own prosperity, making our own choices, and respecting but not deferring to others”. This hardly distinguishes us from any other nation and yet all other political discourse on our values suggests that we and they are somehow unique.

It may well be a valid claim to say we are unique in our political arrangements. This may be what our leaders from Labor have in mind when they persist that we must navigate the world by “cooperating where we can, disagreeing where we must, and managing our differences wisely”. That is the sort of platitude to which our values may be reduced when we allow ourselves to view the world solely through the prism of politics.

But everyday Australians do not develop their values entirely through that prism. When asked about what they value they do not limit themselves to political reference points and ideological terms. They articulate a human-focused array of values which certainly includes democracy, equal opportunity and the fair go but also goes way beyond that to quite particular aspirations that they have for the safety and wellbeing of themselves, their children and whoever they love, the whole society they live in and for the whole world’s human community. They articulate the type of community and world to which they want to belong and, when given the chance, sketch out the features of what wellbeing means for them in aspirational terms evocative of a great longing for peace, security, harmony and love.

The fact that they do this – and what they say when they are given the chance to do it – is something I have shown in my book, The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy. The evidence shows that when we look back over the responses of Australians in recent decades in surveys, community discussions, local planning processes, focus groups and other research programs, it is apparent that Australians value peace, not war. Peace is perhaps our most enduring value in the post World War II period, although you wouldn’t know it when it is drowned out by political posturing and blatant drums-of-war propaganda. You wouldn’t know it if all you attended to was the militaristic discourse that has been pushed onto Australians since Gallipoli which celebrates war.

And you wouldn’t know it if you attended to the “Guiding Principles” that have been adopted by the Defence Department for their reform of defence legislation. These principles ratchet up the value placed on war by the federal government in what can only be described as an insult to the character of Australians and Australia itself as a decent, socially inclusive, humane nation seeking, as Penny Wong claims, “to live in peace and prosperity”.

If that is our overarching aim – and the research on Australian values in The People’s Constitution would suggest that Penny Wong is right on this point – the principles chosen by the Defence Department to guide their decisions on legislative reform are antithetical to our most important values.

The word “peace” does not feature anywhere in the consultation paper on Reforming Defence Legislation. We might expect that any guiding principles for the Defence Department would value a more belligerent posture towards war than Australians want, but not to the complete exclusion of considerations of peace. Furthermore it would not be unreasonable for Australians to expect that war might only be valued by a Defence force in a nuclear age to the extent that is necessary for purposes of defence, not aggression. But what we have been served in the consultation paper is a principle that the reforms must position the defence force as “an agile, integrated, war-fighting enterprise”.

Australians do not value military aggression and we certainly don’t value “war-fighting” as an “enterprise” with all its implications of commercial benefit for a few via the death of millions and possible extinction of cultures and other species. But the whole point of the defence legislation review seems to be to make that and nothing else possible.

A second guiding principle of “flexibility” relied on in the consultation paper is also an insult to the values of Australians inasmuch as Defence has promoted it to justify a “technology-neutral legislative framework”. Wary Australians can and should take this to mean that Defence is seeking to create a legislative basis for storage, proliferation or even use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons. Defence suggests that legislation should “avoid prescription as far as possible, reducing rigid and inflexible approaches to the conduct of Defence activities”. But when it comes to licensing the defence forces to kill the people of other sovereign nations, expose our own people as targets and lay the natural environment open to destruction, legislation should be heavily prescriptive – even more prescriptive than it is now. The aggressive focus of the Defence Department and forces should be tightly reined in to keep Australia safe. Above all the Defence Department should not be given legislative authority to start a war, especially not a “technology-neutral” one. Nothing in the way of peace can come from such principles.

If, as Penny Wong says, “our foreign policy must be an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests – of who we are and what we want”, then it is inarguable that our defence policies should be tuned reflect the same. But the guiding principles for the proposed defence reforms are poised to defeat both the values of Australians and the foreign policy Penny Wong has attempted to describe – one where we “avert war and maintain peace”. They are set to legalise the turning of the Department of Defence into the Department of Aggression. They are set to legalise illegal war-fighting enterprises.

Since this is so inconsistent with the values of Australians for the promotion of peace in our region the most appropriate response from the government should be to shelve the whole defence legislative reform initiative and replace it with a fully inclusive strategic planning process in which Australians can participate to define for the first time in history the nation’s strategic interests in our region and develop paths towards the maintenance of those interests that are consistent with their values.

The government’s alternative is to proceed with a policy focus in defence that will fully defeat Wong’s apparent foreign policy focus. So much for Australian values if the government selects that course!

For detailed research on the values of Australians in the 2020s see Chapter 5 of The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy.

For more information on alternative strategic approaches to defence of Australia see the submission by Australian Community Futures Planning to the Defence legislation reforms here.

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