On 26 February during a Senate Estimates hearing I asked the Department of Defence about a review reported to be underway between the US and Australian governments on the Pine Gap Agreement. The senior Department of Defence personnel had never heard of a review, but assured me that he and his department would know if such a review was underway.
Signed in 1967, the agreement about Pine Gap between Australia and the USA was sealed when the token payment of a single peppercorn passed hands. In November 2008 the last 10-year extension of that treaty expired. US Consul General Michael Thurston said in the ABC piece online on Monday 23 February, "It's under review and that's what you do periodically with agreements, you take a look at them and both sides agree that this is what you want - you either upgrade or update the agreement, you make changes or you don't make changes and then you send it around for review and that's probably more the timely process is actually getting everybody who's got an interest taking a look and actually signing off on it," he said.
It most would certainly be good to take a look at this agreement, but citizens or parliamentarians are not allowed to see it. In 1999 the government refused to provide information about Pine Gap to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties - information that is made freely available to members of the US Congress. Nothing has changed since then. Although US Congress officials have visited Pine Gap and received classified briefings about its functions, elected representatives and Senators are entrusted with less information than can be found in a public library.
The history of disinformation and misinformation about Pine Gap is long. In 1966, Australians were told the facility was to be a weather station. Later the official cover was a "Space Research Centre". Australians have the right to know what is happening on Australian soil at one of largest and most sophisticated satellite ground stations in the world. Information is still not forthcoming about who is being spied upon, and who is being targeted through this facility? Was it used to coordinate air strikes against Iraqi citizens in a war accurately described by the UN Secretary General and other leaders as an illegal war? How is it used to support US nuclear war fighting capabilities, and how is that consistent with our government's efforts towards nuclear disarmament?
Last week the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee issued a report on a government bill to clamp down on peaceful protest at Pine Gap, which the Australian Greens opposed, issuing a dissenting report.
Under the Defence Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, the Government has strengthened provisions defining Pine Gap as a "prohibited area" required for the defence of Australia. Those who enter or photograph the site face imprisonment for up to seven years.
Why did this legislation come about?
The Howard Government's Attorney General Phillip Ruddock tried unsuccessfully to prosecute four Christian pacifists for entering Pine Gap, using the Defence Special Undertakings act for the first time in its long history. These people entered Pine Gap after informing the Defence Minister and the media of their intention to conduct a peaceful and nonviolent "citizens inspection" of the facility.
Despite engaging an army of QCs, at taxpayer's expense, to inflict the maximum punishment and to place maximum limitation on the court hearing the defence's justification and legal argument, the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the convictions of the Christian pacifists. The court found that citizens had the right to challenge whether the 'prohibited area' was necessary for the purpose of the defence of Australia.
Adequate legislation already exists to protect Pine Gap from trespass or acts of aggression, in particular, the Crimes Act of 1914. It is very unfortunate that the Attorney General Robert McLelland is following his predecessor's lead, finishing what Ruddock started by amending the law to further crack down on peaceful protest.
If Pine Gap is indeed a 'core element' of Australia's national security, Australians have a right to know how and why. Rather than making the case for the proposed amendments, the government has described citizens exercising their democratic right to protest as "mischief makers" and have furnished the Committee with statements such as, "Pine Gap makes an important contribution to the security interests of both Australia and the United States of America...The methods used for collecting intelligence at the facility are sensitive..." with absolutely no supporting evidence of any kind. These are not convincing arguments and neither are those made in the Committee's report.
Rather than being convinced that Pine Gap does protect Australians, the Senate is being asked to enact legislation that would further shield Pine Gap from Australians. Such efforts to erode democratic rights are unsupportable and run directly counter to the kind of "security" we need.