Why Australia is an imperialist country by Max Lane

Australia is a small country of 25 million people. It ranks between 12th to 14th in the world in terms of the overall size of its economy. Although the gap between it and the large population, industrialised countries is substantial. Its military spending, ranking also around 12th in the world, therefore matches its ranking in size of economy. However, while the US economy is almost 20 times larger than the Australian economy, Australian defence spending per capita is very high at about 65% of that of the United States. Australia spends high on the armed forces for its small population. Military spending rose by 29 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 2007 and 2016 and is projected to grow from $35 billion in 2017-18 to $42 billion by 2021.

us navy

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Article: Stopping the boats is about smashing social solidarity by Max Lane

(This article was first published in RED FLAG newspaper on June 18, 2015.)

It seems fairly certain now that Australian Customs and Navy personnel paid the captain and crew of an Indonesian ship carrying 65 asylum seekers, including children and a pregnant woman, to take the Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Burmese back to Indonesia.

Sixty-five desperate people, all from situations of misery and repression, who had no doubt spent much of their little cash on the boat ride to New Zealand, were put on two new boats and turned around. This is despite requests by the refugees to be taken on board the Customs and Navy ships.

The Australian state paid the crew to betray their desperate customers and take them back to a society with a per capita income of only US$4,000 per year and mass poverty. No offer was made to bring them to Australia, one of the richest countries in the world (whatever the unjust distribution of that wealth).

Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention. Then Liberal PM John Howard escalated the propaganda about “border security”. His government told the disgusting lie in 2001 that children were “thrown overboard” by asylum seekers in order to force the Navy to rescue them. And it instituted the notorious “Pacific solution”.

Since then, “stop the boats” has become a central platform in the Australian ruling class’s ideological agitation, articulated by both the Liberals and the ALP. It was Rudd’s ALP that came up with the cruel policy that no refugee arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia, but instead be sent to Papua New Guinea. Abbott added to this with the criminal and inhumane tow-back policy.

But why?

Neither party is opposed to receiving refugees in Australia. In 2012-13, 20,000 visas were issued under Australia’s humanitarian program, according to the Department of Immigration. This is nowhere near enough, but it indicates that the elites here have no in-principle objection to refugees settling in Australia. People arriving in Australia on tourist visas by plane who then seek asylum also face minimal obstacles to their settlement.

Neither are the numbers of arrivals by boat huge: in 2009-13, the average was around 10,000 per year. This is an easily absorbable number of people in a population of 24 million. And it is only a fraction of the total annual migration to Australia (around 200,000 people). So why is the hysterical agitation of “stop the boats” and “illegal arrivals” (they are not illegal) so central?

The idea that it is about “defending sovereign borders” is, of course, a joke. Most boats aim only to arrive at Christmas Island, which is a huge distance from the Australian continent and hardly within real borders. The same is true for Ashmore Reef.

As a huge island continent, Australia has always had porous borders. Until Howard’s Tampa agitation, it was considered only a minor problem to do with small numbers of smugglers. Furthermore, the refugees coming by boat are not trying to sneak into Australia – they report directly and as quickly as they can to Australian authorities.

So why?

There is only once conclusion: the issue fulfils a propaganda need for the Australian ruling class. It uses the issue to undermine any philosophy of collective solidarity. The policies legitimise cruelty and inhumanity towards others in the name of “defending sovereignty”, which has become a code word for an illusory “what we have”. This helps legitimise the idea that the world’s have-nots should “wait their turn” in a “queue” that is policed by the haves. This is the reason that “both sides” of bourgeois politics agitate around this issue.

In one sense, it is a good sign that the elite feel that they need such an issue, and that they have to make it so central to their politics. The need indicates that they fear the Australian public’s sense of solidarity with others would otherwise come to the fore. In a society where the trend is for wealth to be redistributed upwards, while cutting back on the level of social services and culture for the majority, an awakened sense of solidarity among people would be a disaster for the ruling class.

“Aspiration”, the cry, is legitimate – but the rich want aspirations fulfilled only for themselves and their close associates. “Defend our borders” is their code word for defending self-interest, even if it means cruelty to others.

This is an existential issue for late capitalism and its escalating upward redistribution. In a rich country like Australia, with a per capita income of $40,000 per year and already advanced infrastructure, which is in a situation of serious relative abundance, where can society be taken?

There are only two choices: more and more redistribution upwards as we head for some kind of technologically advanced barbarism of walled elites, or using that abundance to improve the quality of life for all human beings.

“Stop the boats”, and similar cruel, anti-human slogans, are one of the ruling class’s weapons to defend their choice. Systematising cruelty is laying the foundation for barbarism.

ARTICLE: Widodo, the death sentence and Indonesia’s political vacuum – by MAX LANE

I do not know what the prospects are that President Widodo will stop the current implementation of the death sentence for people convicted of drug related crimes. There is nothing in any of Widodo’s statements that indicates a change of mind on this issue. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera he reaffirmed his decision stating that it was necessary also to “remember the victims”. It was not clear whether this was being presented as a means to lessen the criminal activity as a disincentive or simply as punishment. On the other hand, the Indonesian government has now several times announced a delay in the process to await the outcome of legal processes. A positive outcome in one of the legal appeals is probably the best hope of commutation of sentences, although Indonesia is in an unpredictable state and perhaps anything can happen.

Within Indonesia itself there have been people both fighting the executions practically, such as the groups of lawyers, including well known legal figure, Todung Mulya Lubis, who have been assisting in various legal cases as well as speaking out. Human rights and civil liberties organisations have also spoken out. There have been public fora where academics from several different universities have spoken out against the death sentence. These include, among others, academics from the Jakarta State University, University of Indonesia and the Islamic oriented Paramadina University. The English language news media, especially the Jakarta Globe, has strongly editorialised against the death sentences. The Jakarta Globe’s editorial was entitled: “Okay, Mr. Tough Guy. We Get It. Now Stop.” Former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda has also spoken out against the death sentences.

In an article on March 8 in the Jakarta Globe, the reporter was able to find street vox pop’s both in favour of the death penalty for drug crime convictees as well as those who thought the punishment was too harsh.

Despite these voices, it is probably true to say that they have been unable to make a major impact on the national political discourse. Widodo has announced, or hinted, that there may be an eventual moratorium on the death sentence. This was mentioned at a recent U.N. commission hearing in Geneva.  Such a hint probably reflects a combination of the considerable international criticism Widodo has received, as well as from the dissident domestic voices in society, and perhaps also in his cabinet. Even so, the dominant theme in the mainstream political conversation has not been around the rights and wrongs of the death sentence, but rather around the importance of resisting attacks on sovereignty on this issue, that is of resisting criticism and pressure from outside of Indonesia.

Continue reading “ARTICLE: Widodo, the death sentence and Indonesia’s political vacuum – by MAX LANE”

ARTICLE (Refugees): Is Australia engaging in piracy? by Max Lane

(First published in THE JAKARTA POST, February 12, 2014.)

It would appear that at least three times in recent weeks, the Australian navy and also the customs service has detained Indonesian and other foreign citizens traveling on boats heading for Christmas Island, a territory under Australian sovereignty. They were people intending to claim refugee status on arrival on Australian territory, which is a right guaranteed under international law. From reports in the Australian press, the initial detentions either took place on the high seas or in Australian waters.

However, the Indonesian, Iraqi, Somalian and other citizens were then in de facto detention as they were towed back across international waters toward Indonesian waters against their will. Some of the refugees have claimed that the Australian ships turned off their lights at night, the implication being that they entered into Indonesian waters. The Australian navy has denied this.

In one case, the refugees were towed back in the boat in which they had been traveling. In two other cases, they were transferred — obviously against their will — into small lifeboats that the Australian government recently bought in Singapore and made to go back to Java in them. Two such lifeboats have now been found on the Java coast.     Continue reading “ARTICLE (Refugees): Is Australia engaging in piracy? by Max Lane”

COMMENT: Refugees, burned hands and not making compromises – by Max Lane

On January 22 the Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, TV and website as well as the Sydney morning Herald and The Age published reports that refugees that had been intercepted on the sea by Australian navy vessels had been tortured by navy personnel. According to the refugees, they had been forced to hold on to hot exhaust pipes from their boat’s motor. They also claimed that Australian Navy personnel had kicked them. The news reports showed photos of their burned hands. The refugees reported this to the Indonesian police who have stated that they are investigating the claims.  The Australian government says it will assist any Indonesian police investigation.

Sydney Morning Herald photo: January 25.

Overall however the reactions in Australia to these allegations have been disgraceful but also very dangerous.  Worse, is that these disgraceful and dangerous reactions have come from both the “left” and the right of the mainstream commentaries and responses.

The article which has provoked me into writing these remarks was an article “Official secrecy leaves our Navy exposed” by Mungo MacCallum.  MacCallum has long been one of the more sarcastic critics of Australia’s conservative elite. His ideological perspective has been one of Whitlam-Hawke era social democracy, and not socialist but his criticisms have often been sharp and apt. His article on this issue is, however, quite shocking and contributes to the dangerous slide towards granting impunity to the state in almost all of the discussion.

MacCallum declares at the beginning of his article the overlap between his owns views and those of current right-wing prime minister, Abbott:  “For once I have to agree with Tony Abbott. I do not believe that Australian Navy personnel ordered asylum seekers to hold on to hot metal pipes, thereby inflicting serious burns to their hands.”  This automatic defence of Australian navy personnel as being impossible of carrying out such torture is shared across the whole mainstream of political groups and commentators. The most the ALP leader, Shorten, could say was that was the allegations were “concerning” but then he went on to echo the pre-Australia Day patriotic defence of the Australian Armed Forces.

There are many issues here. I want to comment on just two.

Continue reading “COMMENT: Refugees, burned hands and not making compromises – by Max Lane”

“The ‘prickly’ relationship between Australia and Indonesia”: an article from 1995 by Max Lane

“Words May Be Consensual, But The Actions Are Confrontationist.”

by Max Lane

Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1995


IT’S SURPRISING that any observer of Indonesian society and politics could accept the official line that Indonesia’s approach to the resolution of issues is “consensual”.

Indonesian politics during the three decades of the self-styled New Order has been characterised by the opposite of a consensual approach. It has been based on political exclusion and disenfranchisement of greater and greater sections of the population – namely, all those who disagree with the Government’s policies.

Yet the former Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, on this page on September 11, explained the often “prickly” relationship between Australia and Indonesia as the result of “the different natures and cultures of our two societies. (Australia’s) pursuit of issues is often confrontational. In Indonesia, such processes tend to be consensual”. Continue reading ““The ‘prickly’ relationship between Australia and Indonesia”: an article from 1995 by Max Lane”

VERY SHORT COMMENT: The polls, the ALP and the Greens.

With the decline of the trade union movement (primarily due to the acquiescence of its bureaucratic caste leadership to the 1980s Prices-and-Incomes Accord and consequent demobilisation) and the connected decline of ALP activist membership, there are few (if any) mechanisms to know clearly the political thinking of the “public”, the working class, who make up 80% or more of the population. In the past, mass organisations’ activity meant that there was a way to know what people actually thought without having to rely on what the corporate owned media and polling companies (and the corporate co-opted ABC) say about what the majority of us think. Constant pronouncements of what majority opinion is, unchallenged by any ongoing, organised mass activity, such as by trade unions (limited as they may have been), has a 1984-like self-confirming impact. What they poll is turned into reality, backed up and echoed those views may be by now a monopolised media (with the co-option of the ABC.) If current poll predictions by the corporate owned media (and co-opted ABC) are correct of a big win by the reactionaries, they will have helped create that outcome – facilitated by the ALP’s own moral, political and intellectual bankruptcy. If current polls by the corporate owned media (and co-opted ABC) are correct and the ALP suffer a severe defeat, and given its bankruptcy and absence of any talented opportunist politicians among its ranks, its historical role as the ‘natural party of opposition’ (except when needed by the ruling class) may be ending.

It is increasingly clear – especially now with the Liberals openly talking about their coming ten year rule – that Abbott will claim a mandate for most conservative set of policies and continue to drive home their attacks on the ALP.

If this turns out to be the case, in the immediate term, there will be enormous pressure on the Greens to fill this vacuum. And enormous efforts by the reactionaries to destroy the Greens as a new option.

This pressure will amount to an objective demand on the Greens to abandon the current anemic past. The Greens will not be able to survive as just an anemic electoralist minority party. It won’t be enough.

Meanwhile, given the Greens own anemic politics (see Greens anemia), how will their leadership, membership, supporters and sympathisers respond?