Reflections by Robin Taubenfeld

My brow is a bit more furrowed, but we have made it safely back home. Talisman Saber 2017 has only just begun on the coast of central Queensland but our biennial pilgrimage to the site of these huge US-led nuclear weapons capable military exercises has come to an end. The school holidays are over. It’s time for kids to get back to school and for adults to do… whatever adults do: paying the bills, washing the uniforms, packing lunches, going to work and thinking about the military-industrial complex in our free time!

I’ve just spent two weeks in the Rockhampton region. Rockhampton proclaims itself to be the beef capital of Australia and is the gateway to the Shoalwater Bay region – which is both part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area and home to the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area, where the Singapore army regularly trains and every two years the US and Australia conduct major combined land, sea and air force training operations called Talisman Saber.

With its plethora of environmentally significant sites, endemic species of birds and turtles, RAMSAR listed wetlands key to international migratory birds, critical sea grass beds, diverse flora, coastal shores and waters protected as part of a world heritage site, dugongs and migrating whales, let alone protected coral reef and all its inhabitants, it is hard to imagine how Shoalwater Bay could be designated for any military training, let alone training that involves use of nuclear powered and nuclear weapons capable vessels, ongoing noise and rumblings of low-flying planes and helicopters, “maritime surface to surface, surface to land and surface to air ‘engagement'” including live firing of missiles and torpedoes, the use of sonar and experimentation with new weapons.

Seventy-two years after the first nuclear bombs were used in warfare, followed by an estimated 2056 nuclear test explosions, on 7 July 2017 the UN successfully passed a treaty to ban the use, housing and support for nuclear weapons. The following day, the live component of Talisman Saber commenced in Queensland. Australia had boycotted the nuclear weapons talks, signalling its commitment as a key part of the US nuclear weapons umbrella. Starting Talisman Saber the following day firmly entrenched Australia in US led nuclear-capable foreign policy.

While many Australians may hardly blink an eye, China and other neighbours in the region are watching.

Talisman Saber 2017 brings 33,000 military personnel (approximately 20,000 US, 13,000 Australian, with small contingents from Japan, New Zealand and Canada) to northern Australia to engage in combined land, sea and air operations.

Much of Talisman Saber takes place at Shoalwater Bay, just north of Rockhampton ‒ the beginning of the tropics and the southern region of the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2013, the US jettisoned four bombs on the Great Barrier Reef when they had difficulty dropping them on their intended target, Townshend Island – also part of the Great Barrier Reef, excised as a bombing range.

While this drew media attention and international condemnation, these four bombs were just the tip of the iceberg of regular bomb drops and live firing. Ecologically speaking, Townshend Island and other reefs and waters used for these and other military operations, are no less part of the Great Barrier Reef marine environment than areas that have not been designated for military use.

There is a push to greatly expand the military presence in the region and to extend the military zone. Despite controversy surrounding this expansion, this year Talisman Saber will include manoeuvres outside the military zone, on public and private land north of Shoalwater Bay at Stanage Bay, also designated protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef. Over two weeks of the exercise, Stanage Bay and beaches between Stanage and the Shoalwater Bay Training Area will be used as amphibious landing staging grounds. Expanding military activity beyond the designated training zone is both politically and environmentally reckless.

Consulting firm AECOM noted in its Talisman Saber ‘Public Environment Report’, prepared for the Department of Defence:

“The marine environment in the Stanage Bay area is recognised as an important nesting, foraging and breeding area for Flatback Turtles as well as providing known habitat for Dugong, Southern Humpback Dolphin, five of Australia’s six marine turtle species, and other protected marine species. Seagrass beds are also mapped as present along a number of the beaches proposed for use…

 …Both the Indigenous and Historical heritage values at Stanage Bay are poorly understood generally due to a lack of systematic assessment of the area. It currently has three registered Aboriginal heritage sites in the proposed activity area but there are likely to be more due to lack of detailed archaeological assessment. Camp sites, middens and stone artefact processing sites are likely to be found within the beach foredune areas and anywhere with freshwater. Burial sites can also be found in soft sand in foredunes. In addition to archaeological sites, there are a number of landforms (rocky outcrops, fossilised coral, waterholes and headlands) that are likely to have intangible cultural heritage importance to local Aboriginal people (i.e. sacred sites). These are typically associated with landform and ecological features that are unique in an area.”[i]

Furthermore, it is clear that new amphibious landing machinery is expected to impact on sea floor and beach environments. The AECOM report states: “There may be localised scouring of seagrass habitat during beach landing events, however this will be localised in nature and avoided or minimised through operational controls.” [ii]

The lack of data surrounding heritage sites in the Stanage Bay region, coupled with the understanding that heritage sites are “likely”, combined with the knowledge of likely damage to beach and ocean-floor regions, makes any use of Stanage Bay for amphibious landing unacceptable.

While community opposition has halted the forced acquisition of land around Stanage Bay, the plan to expand the military zone remains intact, with the government expecting to slowly purchase the land in the region, leaving locals uncertain about their future. Clearly some have agreed to sell or to provide the military access to their land. How will this impact on others?

The Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area was initially set up in 1965. In 1993-1994 the “Commission of Inquiry into Shoalwater Bay, Capricornia Coast, Queensland” explored the options for the region, prioritising a balance between military use and conservation – still allowing some recreational and agricultural uses.

Historically, local conservationists have supported military use, considering this preferable to ongoing cattle grazing on the land. There was an understanding that the dual-uses of military training and conservation would be balanced and an expectation that significant resourcing would go in to supporting, and monitoring and protecting the local environment. Despite the fact that military activity is fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection, the military have for the most part been seen to take environmental stewardship seriously. However, the push to expand raises new concerns. With the entire shoreline and coast part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, proposing land acquisition for military use without environmental review signifies a move away from prioritising environmental management or protection of this region.

In 2005, Australia made a long-term agreement with the US, turning Shoalwater Bay into a Joint Combined Training Centre and the first biennial Talisman Saber took place. Later, agreements were made to streamline environmental assessment of these military activities. Now, while glossy Public Environment Reports and fact sheets are written for each Talisman Saber, they are a public relations exercise and are not formally assessed ‒ formal assessment is no longer required under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Written by private consulting firms to assuage public concern, they downplay any potential environmental impacts and fail to address social, broader environmental and political impacts of US-led combined military training in the region.

The current expansion into public and private land within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area should trigger concern, and an Environmental Impact Assessment. Any change of use in the region, extension of the facility or expansion of military activity in the region should take Shoalwater Bay back to the drawing board where environmental protection befitting a World Heritage area is prioritised.

Shoalwater Bay and its surrounds are, of course, not the only areas threatened by military use and the push for militarism in our region. Talisman Saber 2017, while huge, is only one of many military training exercises. Talisman Saber does, however already impact on locations of global environmental significance, such as Saumarez Reef, the Timor, Arafura and Coral Seas, Halifax Bay (off Townsville within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park), Cowley Beach (located within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area of Queensland), and habitats for endangered species such as the Northern Quoll and Gouldian Finch (Mt Bundy, NT, near Kakadu).

These precious eco-systems are already under pressure from recent critical weather events, loss of habitat, coral bleaching etc. Partnering with the US military can only exacerbate the problems. The US military “produces 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually, establishing the US military as the ‘largest single polluter of any agency or organization in the world’ (Sanders, 2009, p.50).” [iii]

No matter where these war games are conducted, or how they are environmentally managed, US and Australian battle fleets conducting nuclear-capable military exercises will set off political alarm bells in our region and remind the world that Australia is deeply involved and supportive of US military activity.

Australia sells uranium to the US, has sent troops to US-led conflicts around the world and allows the US to use its military and civilian infrastructure – such as communication stations, ports and airfields. Australia houses one of the US’s key satellite spy stations, Pine Gap, which helps guide US weaponry in the Middle East and is part of its missile defence system. There are up to 2,500 US troops stationed in Darwin, strategically close to China and the South China Sea, Australia allows US planes deployed from Guam to fly over the Northern Territory to drop bombs. Australia allows the US to conduct troop changeovers in Western Australia, allowing US troops to deploy from Fremantle. Australia regularly conducts military exercises with the US and every two years, Australia hosts Talisman Saber.

The purpose of these exercises is to “improve training and interoperability between the Australian and US Armed Forces”.[iv] In the pre-Trump era, it was clear that China had concerns about this show of military might in the region. Now, with Australia firmly in the pro-nukes camp, the rest of the world is watching more closely.

Talisman Saber protests

Every two years, we make the trek up to Rockhampton to express our concerns about Talisman Saber. The audience is small but we persist! In 2005, 50 people went up and blocked military traffic and joined hundreds of locals in a peace concert and march.

In 2007, 1,000 people went up to protest Bush and Howard’s determination to send us into an era of endless war. There were parades, hokey-pokeys, street theatre, a Make Love Not War nude action, a lock-on, blockades, candlelight vigils, concerts, music, art, films and more.

This year we were tiny, we did some street theatre and speak-outs, joined NAIDOC, handed out peace balloons and agreed to focus on re-making connections and looking for ways to make media tell this story. This is not a Rockhampton or Shoalwater Bay issue, this is a national and international one. Are you willing to keep Australia marching down the nuclear war path? Is the environment acceptable collateral damage for continuing down that path? Is there no option to economies of war? Can Shoalwater Bay be protected from us, by us?

We decided to drive to Stanage Bay to take some images before the amphibious landings arrived. Only 175 km from Rockhampton, the estimated travel time was between 2.5 and 4 hours due to the surface conditions. Off the side of the heavily corrugated road we could see armoured personnel vehicles and tanks. Trucks were carrying heavy machinery and equipment towards the military zone. Driving too quickly, I suddenly lost control on a bend and the car spun out and around. Two flat tyres and luckily no-one hurt. There was no mobile coverage. We were stranded.

The first vehicle stopped and out popped an army car mechanic, who promptly took control of the situation, put my spare on the worse wheel and offered to escort us slowly on wobbly flat tyres to the military zone to seek further help.  Stunned, we drove behind her into Shoalwater Bay Military Training Zone and parked. She then negotiated to take me deeper inside – and up a hill – to find mobile reception to call the RACQ (auto club) for a tow truck. She waited. We talked. She could be in trouble for using her military vehicle for non-military work. I was on top of a hill inside the elusive military zone! Something was being dug and it looked like bunkers being built. And it was beautiful.

I told her that I was with Friends of the Earth and was heading up to Stanage Bay to take images before the military activity there – I didn’t want her to find out later from military police and then feel deceived. We discussed politics and the environment as we drove back to the gate. She had joined the military to get a trade. I hope she didn’t get in trouble.

Just outside the Shoalwater Bay Training Area where we waited 4 hours to have car towed.

When I was 15, I took the ASVAB test to explore options of joining the military – to travel and get a free university education. I visited Annapolis – the Naval Academy – and then decided it was too tidy and I didn’t think I would like to have to maybe kill someone. Luckily, I had other options. My car mechanic rescuer who took me inside the military zone to make a phone call was lovely, human, and had joined the military to get a trade.

And that is not good enough. I dream of the world where a young woman can get a trade without having to join an organisation that kills, where Shoalwater Bay is there for Shoalwater Bay and handed back to the Darumbal People, and where peace is part of national defence.

We are at a crossroads. The world has spoken out about the use of and support for nuclear weapons. Australia can disentangle itself from “diplomacy” based on the threat of the use-of-force. It will take courage to lead for peace. Stopping Talisman Saber would be a step in the right direction.

Stop the Exercises! Close the Bases! End the Wars!

What can you do?

Join your local anti-nuclear and/or peace group!

Let your politicians know that you want peaceful and independent foreign policy!

Support the campaign to Ban the Bomb!

Take peace and environmental action near you!

Find out more: Peace Convergence, Brisbane Friends of the Earth

Robin Taubenfeld is a member of Friends of the Earth Brisbane, and a national nuclear spokesperson with FoE Australia.

[i] AECOM, Prepared for – Department of Defence, Talisman Saber 2017 Public Environment Report, 21-Feb-2016,p38.

[ii] Ibid, p99.

[iii] Walsh, B.T. Forgetting Histories of Toxic Military Violence, A Communication Perspective on the Military Interactions, Message, and Discourses, Parcell & Webb eds, 2015  p. 392.)

[iv] AECOM, p13.

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