The US–Australian joint facilities and the invention of General Knowledge
11 Jul 2013|

Bob Hawke with US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in the Anzus Corridor in the Pentagon, June 1983.In a Ministerial Statement late last month, Defence Minister Stephen Smith outlined and explained the Australian government’s principles of ‘Full Knowledge and Concurrence’ in relation to American defence activities in Australia. This statement merits greater attention than it has received, not least because it’s an important contribution to making our defence activities with the US more transparent. But I want to take issue with some of the claims in the statement, particularly the claim that Full Knowledge and Concurrence didn’t exist in relation to the joint facilities before the prime ministership of Bob Hawke in the 1980s. And I want to cast Hawke’s contribution to the whole issue of the joint facilities in a different light.

Let me begin by briefly summarising how Smith defined his key principles:

Full Knowledge equates to Australia having a full and detailed understanding of any capability or activity with a presence on Australian territory or making use of Australian assets.

Concurrence means Australia approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia in support of its mutually agreed goals. Concurrence does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken.

Let’s begin with Full Knowledge. A reading of the parliamentary debates and Ministerial Statements before the Hawke years suggests that successive Australian governments were fully informed about the roles and functions of the various US defence facilities then being established and operating in Australia. Indeed, various ministers repeatedly stated that they were fully informed. John Gorton, for example, after his visit to the US in 1969 told parliament that ‘the Australian government…must be, and is, provided with full information concerning any proposed base.’

The problem, of course, was that full information was made available only to those with a strict ‘need to know’. Beyond that small, charmed circle, information was much harder to come by. In some cases, for example the US naval communications facility at North West Cape, parliament could still have a meaningful debate about the costs and benefits of hosting such a facility, for the simple reason that the function of the facility was relatively apparent. But in other cases—the joint ‘defence space research’ facility at Pine Gap or the joint ‘defence space communications’ facility at Nurrungar, for example—the description of the purpose of the facility was so oblique as to encourage wild speculation over its possible role and function. During the 1969 parliamentary debate on Nurrungar, for instance, Bill Hayden speculated that Nurrungar might be part of an American Fractional Orbital Bombardment System. The idea seems fanciful to us now, but in retrospect it ought to provide a cautionary tale.

A key problem with the early history of the joint facilities wasn’t that the government was denied full information—it was a problem of what we might call General Knowledge rather than Full Knowledge. Anyone beyond the need to know circle knew so little as to excite misrepresentation. It was partly in order to dampen such speculation that Australian governments gradually began to talk more about what the facilities did not do. See, for example, David Fairbairn’s comments in parliament on 14 September 1971 about Pine Gap: ‘I must stress that the facility is entirely defensive and it cannot initiate offence.’ Lance Barnard made a similar point about both Pine Gap and Nurrungar on 28 February 1973: ‘I state clearly that neither station is part of a weapons system and neither station can be used to attack any country’.

Bob Hawke spoke more directly about what the facilities did do. His contribution to the debate was not to widen dramatically the circle of those with Full Knowledge—even today that remains limited by the need to know.  Rather, his contribution was to provide sufficient General Knowledge about the bases as to quell fanciful ideas about their functions. Australian governments since then have continued to provide General Knowledge about new activities, and Smith’s own latest contribution should be seen in that light.

So when the Australian government next comes to this issue, perhaps it ought to insert one more principle into its philosophy. Any foreign power proposing a new joint defence facility with Australia must be willing to fulfil the General Knowledge test—it must be willing to accept a public description of the function of the facility which provides sufficient information for an informed public debate, without transgressing on sensitive technical areas.

Finally, let me turn to the area of Concurrence. I think in this area there are good reasons why Defence Minister Smith has chosen not to reach back to the years before the Hawke government. Before then, the Australian Labor Party—or at least some parts of it—wouldn’t have supported the definition of Concurrence that Smith proposed. In its initial criticisms of the North West Cape facility, the ALP insisted that Australia should have joint control over the individual US taskings relayed through the facility, so that it might be able to veto transmission of an order with which it disagreed, such as an order to fire submarine-based nuclear weapons. During a parliamentary debate in 1963, Gough Whitlam colourfully put this position as ‘no annihilation without representation’ (picking up a phrase coined by the British historian Arnold Toynbee in 1947).  Even in the early 1980s, senior ALP figures were still insisting that the Agreement covering North West Cape should be changed to reflect this policy.

So Hawke’s second contribution to discussion about the joint facilities was to soften an ALP claim for ‘control’ into an acceptance of Concurrence, where Australian approval of the broad function of a facility was of central importance, but where Australia did not demand control over individual taskings. But Concurrence in that broad sense would not have sounded strange to the Australian governments that preceded Hawke’s. Approval of the presence of a function or capability at a general level was pretty much their policy too.

I think Smith’s right that a good level of bipartisanship now exists in relation to the joint facilities, and that bipartisanship turns upon Full Knowledge by the government, General Knowledge by those without a strict need to know, and broad Concurrence rather than veto rights.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.