US-Australian defence relations set for upgrading

CANBERRA - A VISIT to Canberra by America's highest-ranking soldier has finally brought to light moves to base US forces in Australia.

By Ross Peake

Published: Mon 19 Jan 2004, 12:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:20 AM

Prime Minister John Howard has repeatedly denied recent leaked reports that he was considering allowing the establishment of a permanent US base. When US General Richard Myers flew in on January 16, it was thought his top-level talk would focus on Australia's involvement in the so-called son of Star Wars plan and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project. However, he rocked the political establishment by disclosing news that Howard apparently would not volunteer - that Canberra and Washington will deepen defence ties by agreeing to a joint military training facility on Australian soil.

While planning is still in the embryonic stage, the camp would enable troops from the US Pacific Command to conduct exercises with Australian Special Forces. It would mean US forces were on Australian soil. General Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the move should not be seen as an attempt by the US to develop a permanent base in Australia. But Australian citizens are asking this week how else can the move be seen except as a `foot in the door' exercise.

Two months ago the Howard government hosed down reports from apparently well-placed confidential sources that Washington wanted to develop a defence staging post near Darwin in the far north of Australia to house a large number of tanks, ammunition and artillery. The huge store of military equipment would be used by America's US Asia-Pacific forces in an emergency operation, such as helping to put down a coup in an Asian nation friendly towards Washington. The basing of the US forces would directly benefit Australia by discouraging an invasion of its shores, although such an invasion is unlikely and difficult to mount due to the long sea lanes to the island continent. That issue raises many questions in the Australian community about the necessity of the current high level of defence spending. Incredulity should also be applied to Australia's keenness to be involved in the latest ambitious scheme from Washington. It was revealed this week Australian officials are negotiating a memorandum of understanding with US officials on involvement in the missile defence programme.

Howard says his government would be "recklessly negligent" if it did not consider joining the `son of Star Wars' programme. But the chance of a missile attack on Australia is so remote that there is outright scepticism about Howard's real intentions. Cosying up to George W. Bush is probably the real aim of this exercise. Leading the criticism is the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, which says Howard is ignoring warnings from its neighbours that Australia's support will destabilise security in the region. The latest defence developments again highlight just how the Howard government is prepared to play with the truth and arrogantly avoid straight answers to any questioning.

Howard has total control of his ministers and the bureaucracy and he has perfected a masterful `spin machine' to put out the best image of his administration. He rewards compliant media and blocks access to those that criticise him. Therefore, when he says his government would be "recklessly negligent" if it did not consider joining the `son of Star Wars' programme, this statement is accepted unquestioningly by most media outlets. But they should not, given Howard's track record of being loose with the truth.

When he was trying to win the 1996 election, he said he would "never, ever" introduce a goods and services tax. However, he ditched that promise after his election victory. Since then there have been several occasions where his government has been found not to be telling the truth. Nevertheless. His rating on trustworthiness is now almost exactly the same as it was when he first became prime minister - about 60 per cent of voters considered him trustworthy eight years ago and 60 per cent still consider him trustworthy. It appears voters in Australia are willing to ignore lack of truthfulness when they believe an end is justified, despite the means.

In this election year in Australia, Howard's pitch to Australians is that he has been strong and decisive on the issues of border protection and national security and therefore he is a decisive leader they can trust if they discard concerns about always needing to be told the truth.

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