Back to All News

It's time to close Pine Gap

I'd like to speak tonight about something that's happening right now in Alice Springs involving a number of people from my home state of Queensland. It is a trial that's occurring about some people who conducted a peaceful protest at Pine Gap quite recently. The Pine Gap spy base has been in operation now for just over 50 years. This original Pine Gap agreement with the US government was signed in 1966. In September last year, several hundred Australians from a range of ages, backgrounds, professions and faiths gathered in Alice Springs to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of that Pine Gap agreement and protest against it. They have continued part of what has been a very long tradition of protest regarding the Pine Gap spy base. It is worth emphasising that the role of this base, as a part of the global war machine, has increased dramatically in recent times, so those concerns that were expressed by many protesters through the eighties, nineties and early parts of this century are more valid than ever.

If I could quote esteemed academic and one of the foremost experts on this issue in Australia, Professor Richard Tanter has said:

Pine Gap literally hardwires us into the activities of the American military… So whether or not the Australian government thinks that an attack on North Korea is either justified, or a wise and sensible move, we will be part of that… We’ll be culpable in the terms of the consequences.

And, potentially, we will get the blowback of the consequences. Let me emphasise that. That says 'whether or not the Australian government thinks that it's a good idea what the US might decide to do in regards to an attack on North Korea on any other nation', not the Australian people. We don't get a say in that. The Australian people don't even get a say when our own government decides to go to war, but at least that's an open statement. At least we can talk about it and ask questions in parliament, even if the people can't have a direct say. But on this and what the US government might do, neither the Australian people nor the Australian government have a direct say.

This is relevant not just for any potential attack that the US—under the leadership of President Trump, no less—might decide to do on a whim one day but also for what is happening now. It is a well-established fact now that the Pine Gap spy base is a key part of enabling an extensive number of drone attacks, which have been documented even by the US government themselves—the ones they've admitted to—to have been responsible for the death of thousands of civilians under former President Obama, former President Bush before him and the current president as well.

I would like to quote Malala Yousafzai, the esteemed young woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired people around the world to stand up against terrorism and the Taliban, who shot her in the head and tried to kill her for the crime of going to school. When she got that peace prize and had that audience with President Obama, she asked him directly: 'Please, stop dropping those bombs from those drones. You're just making things worse. You're making the wars worse. You're making terrorism worse.' She, unfortunately, was ignored, but that request from her was a request to our government as well—and the Australian people—because we are part of that via our continuing agreement with Pine Gap. That is why I express strong support for those people who have protested throughout the years and decades, including last year.

It is appropriate for me to pay tribute to many parliamentary colleagues of the past who have been part of that—and, perhaps, a reflection on my own not-common situation of being a former representative here with the Democrats and now with the Greens. I note at least a couple of other senators: Senator Jean Jenkins and Senator Janet Powell, who were with the Democrats and who also subsequently joined the Greens and ran as candidates down the track, and Senator Vicki Bourne. And, of course, there have been many Greens, including Senator Scott Ludlam and Senator Jo Valentine—the very first Greens' senator in this chamber. There are many others who have continued to be part of providing support for the peace movement and who have expressed extreme concern about the role this base plays in continuing and expanding war and death around the globe—and, scandalously, alongside that, the absolute zero information and zero say the Australian people have over it.

We've heard in the context of a very different debate this week a lot of talk about freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Last year, as part of those protests there, six Australian citizens entered the grounds of the Pine Gap base to sing songs and pray. That was the extent of their protest. It was very much a faith based protest and clearly a non-violent protest. They were arrested, as occurs in these circumstances, but, unlike in almost every other circumstance where such protesters have been charged with trespass, this government and the current Attorney-General chose, and proactively chose, to prosecute these citizens for unlawful entry under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, a Cold War act that was drafted to secure areas for British nuclear testing. That was the purpose of it, but it has since been expanded to enable the protection, and almost ultimate total secrecy, of this spy base in the middle of the country. It was an explicit decision of this Attorney-General to prosecute these people. Right at this minute the trial is happening, and the Commonwealth is explicitly seeking to jail these people. That's the sole reason the Attorney-General is using this act: to try to get these people jailed, potentially for up to seven years, for praying and singing songs of lament about the death that is enabled by the Pine Gap spy base.

I fully appreciate that some in the chamber and some in the community do not support the intent of these Christians, but no-one could doubt their sincerity. I certainly can't. I know a number of them: Margaret Pestorius and Andrew Paine, who I know very well, in particular, are very committed and very effective young peaceful activists; Jim Dowling, who has been a peace activist in Brisbane for many years; as well as Tim Webb and Franz Dowling—and also Paul Christie, who was arrested separately. I can vouch and do vouch and will vouch personally for the peaceful intent and the genuine commitment to peace of these people.

I join with over 70 Australians who put their names to an open letter to Senator Brandis, which was published last Saturday in the Saturday Paper, calling for clemency, because right at this minute the Commonwealth is doing the exact opposite: it is seeking to get significant jail time for these peaceful protesters. Since the time of these protests, even more information has come out about the key role that Pine Gap plays in drone warfare and in enabling, increasing and expanding war and, clearly, in exacerbating the fulcrum and the conditions that enable terrorism to develop further. So, I join with those Australians in calling on the Attorney-General to reconsider his action, to call for clemency, to seek to ensure clemency for these peaceful Christian protesters and to respect those calls for freedom of peaceful expression, freedom of peaceful political communication and freedom of peaceful personal expression of religious beliefs. I seek the leave of the chamber for the open letter to Senator Brandis to be incorporated in the Hansard.

The document read as follows—

Open Letter to Attorney General Senator George Brandis - regarding clemency for the Pine Gap "Peace Pilgrims"

We seek your urgent intervention to protect the right to freedom of speech, expression, political communication and of religion for six Australian citizens who face up to seven years in jail for a peaceful protest in which they were praying and playing musical instruments.

In September 2016, several hundred Australians of diverse ages, professions and creeds gathered in Alice Springs to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Pine Gap Agreement.

As part of the peaceful protests near the facility, five Christians prayed and played a musical lament, regarding the role of Pine Gap in war-fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. They were arrested.

The peaceful and symbolic ceremonies conducted by Margaret Pestorius, Tim Webb, Franz Dowling, Andrew Paine, Jim Dowling, as well as Paul Christie (arrested in a separate incident), were intended to bear witness to the death and suffering of civilians as a result of United States military operations, including drone assassinations, facilitated by surveillance conducted at Pine Gap.

Since their peaceful protests, more evidence has emerged detailing the role of Pine Gap in the activities that concerned the Peace Pilgrims. It implicates Australia in extrajudicial drone assassinations in countries with which we are not at war, in nuclear weapons targeting and in illegal mass surveillance.

Three months after the protest, you authorised the prosecution of these concerned citizens for 'unlawful entry' under the Defence Special Undertakings Act 1952 (Cth).

That legislation was drafted at the height of the Cold War to secure areas for British nuclear testing, and it permits prosecutions to be held in secret, and for records of hearings to be destroyed, imposing penalties of up to $42,000 and 7 years in jail.

This prosecution occurs as Australia prepares to serve on the UN Human Rights Council and when UN Rapporteurs have criticised policies, laws and actions of your government that undermine freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to protest. These are fundamental civil rights, and they are profoundly important when governments are engaged in the sort of conduct which Pine Gap facilitates.

Five of the defendants are devout Christians. Their faith impelled them to give voice to the teachings of peace and love for humanity and creation found in the Bible.

In this case, where Australian citizens were doing no more than praying and peacefully expressing dissent, prosecuting them is not only grossly inappropriate but a shocking waste of court resources.

We, the undersigned, urge you to exercise your discretion to direct this punitive, disproportionate and expensive prosecution be discontinued before the matter comes to court in Alice Springs on 13 November 2017.

Jennifer Robinson, human rights lawyer, Doughty Street Chambers
Ben Oquist, Executive Director, The Australia Institute
Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author
Alex Kelly, documentary filmmaker
Melinda Taylor, international criminal lawyer
Rebecca Peters AO
Julian Burnside AO QC
Scott Ludlam, writer, designer, activist
Asher Wolf, journalist, founder Cryptoparty
Dr Giordano Nanni, founder Juice Media
Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist
Benedict Coyne, President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
Anthony Kelly, Executive Officer, Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre Inc.
Dr Helen Caldicott, President, Beyond Nuclear
Professor Brian Martin, University of Wollongong
John Pilger, journalist
Mark Zirnsak, Director, Justice & International Mission, Uniting Church
Elizabeth O'Shea, lawyer
Professor Tilman Ruff AM
Father Peter Maher OAM
Archie Law, Chair, Sydney Peace Foundation
Tim Lo Surdo, founding director, Democracy in Colour
Richard Tanter, Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne
Annette Brownlie, Chairperson IPAN
Romina Beistseen, Secretary CICD
Helen Razer, writer and broadcaster
Professor Robert Moody, Melbourne University
Shirley Winton, Spirit of Eureka (Victoria)
Jeff Sparrow, writer, editor and broadcaster
Dr Margaret Beavis, Medical Association for Prevention of War
Andrew Farran, international lawyer
Dr. Alison Broinowski, writer and former Australian diplomat
Father John Pettit OCSO
John Menadue AO, businessperson and former Australian diplomat
Cam Walker, National Liaison Officer, Friends of the Earth
Rob Stary, criminal defence lawyer, Adjunct Professor of Law Victoria University
Bernard Keane, politics editor, Crikey Brett Dean, Composer, Viola player
Professor Peter Norden AO, Fellow, Australian & New Zealand Society of Criminology
Dr Tim Sherratt, University of Canberra Chris Drummond, Theatre Director
Paul Barratt, Former Secretary, Dep't of Defence, President, Australians for War Powers Reform
Donna Mulhearn, writer and activist
Harold Wilkinson, Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee
Anne Sgro OAM, President of Union of Australian Women Victoria
Professor Mary Heath, Flinders University
Dr. Peter Burdon, Associate Professor,
Tim Singleton Norton, Chair, Digital Rights Watch
Greg Barns, Barrister, Former National President Australian Lawyers Alliance
Richard Broinowski, President, AIIA NSW
Associate Professor Debra King, Sociology, Flinders University
Denis Doherty, national co-ordinator, Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition
Dr Hannah Middleton, peace and justice activist
Mary Kostakidis, journalist Frank Moorehouse AM, writer
Roger Clarke, UNSW, ANU, Australian Privacy Foundation
Amanda Tattersall, Host, ChangeMakers
Tim Hollo, Executive Director, the Green Institute
Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens and Senator for Victoria
Adam Bandt MP, Acting Co-Deputy Leader, Australian Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne
Senator Janet Rice, Senator for Victoria Senator Lee Rhiannon, Senator for NSW
Senator Rachel Siewert, Acting Co-deputy Leader Australian Greens, Senator for Western Australia
Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, Senator for Tasmania
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator for South Australia
David Pledger, artist, curator

Join the signatories here: https://closepinegap.org/letter/

I thank the chamber for that. I ask all senators to consider lending their support, privately if they wish, to this call to the Attorney-General seeking a different approach. A significant number of the many people at every one of these protests have been peaceful protesters who sought to simply express the message of the 'Prince of Peace', as Christians call Jesus, and who ask that those Christian values, which we so often hear talked about, including by many in Senator Brandis' party, are actually lived out in practice and not just in word.

All of my other Greens colleagues put their names to this letter. I certainly express my support for these fellow Queenslanders. I'm not a religious person, but I'd make an exception by adding some prayers for their wellbeing and the outcome of their case and for a change in policy with regard to the dreadful part of the global war machine that is the Pine Gap spy base.

Back to All News