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The war on asylum seekers

  • 22 January 2014

The current dispute with Indonesia over border incursions by the Australian Navy is symptomatic of a deeper problem — the militarisation of political discourse. Von Clausewitz famously claimed that 'war is politics by other means': in other words, that military force is employed in service of political ends. In Australia, as elsewhere in the West, this is being taken to an extreme not previously seen outside authoritarian societies.

It is true that the Westminster tradition of politics has always viewed the deployment of the armed forces as a matter for the executive (with the governor-general being head of the military). Nevertheless, there were two clear understandings underpinning this tradition.

The first was that military actions were international, involving other states. Secondly, the military was always to remain subject to strict civilian control and oversight — demonstrated, for example, by the fact that control of the military's purse-strings is a matter for the elected parliament alone and not for the executive.

The rhetoric of the 'War on Terror' has undercut these assumptions and thereby opened the way for military action to become a blanket invocation by which Western governments (like their traditionally more authoritarian counterparts) could shield their less appetising workings from inconvenient scrutiny. Thus, even Members of Congress are petitioning the US Government to reveal to them how its US$52 billion 'black budget' is spent.

The spying scandals which have rocked the West in the wake of the Snowden revelations have revealed just how much power has been surrendered by democratically elected legislatures to their militaries in the name of 'security'. This growing militarisation of the state not only affects domestic human rights policy but cuts across government operations and philosophy more generally, tainting all aspects of democratic life.

So it is that in Australia the militarisation of refugee policy under the guise of international conflict (which names like 'Sovereign Borders' is obviously designed to connote) is used as a device for concealment. Even the once-weekly press conferences on boat interceptions have stopped and Parliament itself (which, under the Constitution, funds the military) is denied answers to straightforward questions about refugee policy on the basis that these have become military operational matters.

In a perverse twist, refugees — themselves often the victims of war — are now an enemy to be fought with all the might of the nation's armed forces. Even Melbourne's Herald Sun, not traditionally known for its outspokenness on refugee issues, notes that