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Welcome to Rockhampton ‒ gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, host to Talisman Sabre war 'games'

By Robin Taubenfeld

In July, Australia once again played host to huge joint US–Australian military exercises primarily along the Queensland coast, mainly within or traversing the Great Barrier Reef. And once again, a small group of die-hard peaceniks travelled to Rockhampton, the main town servicing the exercises, to see what we could do in response.

Once again, dressed up as my alter-ego ‒ the quintessential patriotic American Trump-loving Grannie Smith ‒ I was not allowed to attend the military open day, despite the notice in the local newspaper inviting us all to come along. Despite all the jargon about working in partnership to protect democracy, the military alliance seemed uninterested in my lawful right to peacefully look at military hardware.

We were allowed to drive up to the gates of the military training area, though we were told we were not allowed to take pictures facing it. It's a huge expanse of diverse, critical habitats for numerous bird, bat and plant species and marine life. As the Australian Department of Defence notes, the Shoalwater Bay Training Area "is approximately 453,700 hectares (ha) with 289,700 ha occupied by terrestrial environments and the remaining area 164,000 ha occupied by marine environments." Much of this is considered protected as part of the Ramsar agreement for wetlands and by being part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park ... but don't face the gate or any of it, as you might be exposing some top-secret military secrets.

The big secret is the ongoing and increasing use of this precious place as a military training grounds by an increasing number of Australian – read US ‒ military allies.

Touted as Australia's "largest ever bilateral Defence exercise", Talisman Sabre 2019 saw the involvement of 34,000 US and Australian personnel, plus additional forces from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, and observing delegations from India and the Republic of Korea. According to Defence, 18 nations from across the Indo-Pacific region were also invited to an international visitors' program.

Despite the partnerships and broad participation, the majority of troops were American. This year's active involvement of British, Canadian, New Zealand and Japanese contingents is indicative of the gravitas with which these nations view the US-led patrolling of the region. The north-eastern coast of Australia was the stage for yet another display of US military power and Australia's support for it ‒ from Evans Head in NSW to Townsville in Queensland, including the Bundaberg Region, Mackay, Bowen, Proserpine, Gladstone, Townsville, Amberley, Rockhampton, Capricorn Coast, Stanage Bay, the Duke Islands regions and Shoalwater Bay.

Environmental and social impacts

In the lead up to Talisman Sabre, in its public information material and throughout the environmental consultation period, Defence announced an estimated 25,000 troops participating ‒ smallish for Talisman exercises and, despite its growing breadth in area, insisted that Talisman Sabre would entail little or insignificant environmental risk and would not include live firing – a cornerstone, indeed the rationale, for previous Talisman Sabre exercises.

As with the numbers, the military consistently downplays any potential environmental, social or political impacts of these ‒ and other ‒ military exercises, while, with the help of the media, hyping up purported benefits. Brisbane was set to earn millions from marines cavorting in town (read bars).

While we were in the Rockhampton region, however, right-wing senator Pauline Hanson was in Marlborough, a small town north of Rockhampton, listening to disgruntled locals whose properties are targeted for purchase by Defence as part of the Shoalwater expansion. Though forced acquisition of land has been ruled out, the military is buying up properties around the region and seeking to increase Defence's 'estate' in others.

Upon reading further documents, it was also clear that live firing would take place in Shoalwater Bay and possibly other exercise locations, prior to and most likely after the official exercise date ‒ and that these activities would go unassessed due to the technicality of their timing being outside the official exercise dates.

While Defence may have successfully curried favour with local councils, the economic benefits to regions are dubious, the environmental impacts certainly underestimated, and the political ramifications, while perhaps not immediately felt in those regions, are real.

You may have heard the brouhaha about the lone Chinese spy ship surveilling the exercise, but did you hear about the possible nuclear weapons on board US ships? Or that the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, live-fired in Shoalwater Bay prior to the official start date of the exercise, will stay in Australia after Talisman Sabre, for training with the 2,5000 US marines in Darwin?

Of course, China is watching. That is one of the aims of Talisman Sabre – and the build-up of troops in Darwin, and the reason for inviting other countries to come along. To remind China that while our economic links are tight, and though we can agree to boycott nuclear disarmament talks together, in terms of war-fighting capacity, the US is da bomb!

12th Marines commander Col. Mike Roach said "The HIMARS are taking advantage of the opportunity that Australia provides." The article in also opined that "The sparsely-populated continent with its massive military training areas is a contrast to the Marines' home on Okinawa, where military bases take up much of the island, causing friction with some locals."

The Morning Bulletin reported Col. Roach as saying: "Preparation on an exercise like this is years in the making. ... So this is the culmination of a lot of hard work by American and Australian partners working together to put together thousands of soldiers and marines in an area a region, that really nothing existed (in) before… just a while ago, this area was just kangaroos and emus."

Apparently, war games justify Terra Nullius ‒ without them, there would be nothing in the region other than kangaroos and emus! Even in the marine part of the region – just kangaroos and emus, no whales, turtles, shrimp, sea grass, dugongs, nary a snubfin dolphin to be seen.

Sadly, Col. Roach seemed to have forgotten about the traditional owners of the Shoalwater region, the Darumbal people, who have lived continuously in the region for thousands of years as well as all the other beings who lived there… and, of course, all the traditional owners, predecessors and eco-systems of the other regions used by Talisman Sabre. Talisman Sabre is a large, brash face of ongoing colonisation for Shoalwater Bay and other regions it involves.

Expanding into non-Defence areas

Talisman Sabre 2019 continued Defence's push to expand its footprint into non-Defence areas, explicitly using both Defence and non-Defence sites in NSW and new coastal and inland Queensland non-Defence locations at Midge Point, Sarina, Proserpine and the Duke Islands.

Its key location, Shoalwater Bay, is part of (or within) the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The wetlands at Shoalwater Bay are Ramsar listed wetlands significant to migratory birds. The sea grass beds at Shoalwater and other Talisman Sabre locations are critical to Dugong. Only recently identified as a unique species, the Snubfin Dolphin has been found in these waters.

Government-commissioned research in 2017 found that the Shoalwater Bay Training Area provides habitat for:

  • Thirty-six water bird species including eleven species of migratory shorebirds, particularly in Port Clinton, southern Shoalwater Bay and Island Head Creek;
  • The largest Dugong population in the southern Great Barrier Reef since 1987 with a Dugong Protection Area covering the SWBTA waters;
  • Important feeding habitat for Green Turtles;
  • One hundred and one listed marine species; and
  • Large numbers of whales and other cetaceans, migratory waders and shorebirds.

A previous survey concluded that the Training Area provides critical habitat for migratory shorebirds and supports more than 20,000 water birds.

Contested space

Within our limited means, we wanted to give voice to those who live or pass through there.

Shoalwater Bay is, and has been, home to many. And it is contested space. In the 1990s, the Australian public was sold the idea that removing pastoralists and turning the Shoalwater Bay region into a military training area that would have the dual purpose of defence and conservation, would be better for the environment than farming.

What was and still is best for the environment is protection of Shoalwater Bay from both militarism and pastoralism. What's best for the Great Barrier Reef is complete demilitarisation and denuclearisation of the entire ecosystem. What's best for our community is to redress aspects of military colonialism by returning militarised spaces to their Traditional Owners. What's best for our environment is respecting it for its intrinsic value. 

We wanted to find ways to make the links between these learnings or yearnings and the rest of the world. We started protesting Talisman Sabre in 2005 when John Howard tagged along as Bush led the world in to the era of ongoing war. As Donald Trump pokes and prods, the wars are ongoing and yet another war is looming. We wanted to link protecting the home of the snubfin dolphin to preventing a war in Iran.

At the gates to the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area, we held up photos from the Children of the Gulf War exhibition ( while playing the soundtrack from the Collateral Murder files. Released by WikiLeaks in 2010, the files show a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

We did the same at the Rockhampton Barracks. We participated in NAIDOC events and I dressed up as Nemo. I couldn't see much through the eye holes, but I waved and danced around. My guide, Treena, held my hand, handed out #SaveSnubby – Stop the War Games stickers and talked with the public. Little children bombarded me with hugs and we walked around the Adani-sponsored River Festival with a group of Stop Adani friends, including a bobble-head Guatam Adani.

In a town where a company wanting to open Australia's ‒ and one of the world's ‒ largest coal mines has an electronic billboard reading "Thanks for your support, Rockhampton. We're getting to work. Adani Australia", Pauline Hanson coasters reading "I have the guts to say what you're thinking" can be found, and people can be excluded from public events because of who they know, I am glad to be an American.

I can't understand why people would think it OK to prioritise potential short-term jobs in a coal mine over a threatened bird or the Great Barrier Reef. I find it incomprehensible that people whose ancestors came here by boats or came by boat themselves, would want to deny others a space here or refuse to acknowledge the original peoples of the land … and seas.

And I am bemused that people would believe that another nation would want to take over Australia, though as a nation born from invasion, I understand that the Australian settler-state may understandably fear being overtaken as it has done to others. I question, however, whether exercises such as Talisman Sabre provide any security or are indeed an act of defence. In fact, I am pretty sure that they are more about offence. They re-occupy other peoples' lands as an aggressive show of the ability to occupy other peoples' lands – at any expense. While iconic images of the wild, wild west tell us that to be American is to be gun-toting and "All the way with the USA" means to support US-led wars, I am proud to be an American who is unsupportive of US troops training in Shoalwater Bay and US military endeavours globally.

Waving the nuclear sword

I can't imagine how waving the nuclear sword at China is Australia's best political option. Or that engaging in huge nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons capable military exercises, with one of the world's largest polluters and the world's number one consumer of fossil fuels, the US military, in the midst of World Heritage-listed environments is really the best way to protect our way of life – or good for the environment. And even though the military may be doing its best to not destroy some parts of Shoalwater Bay, some of the time, there's no green-washing a nuclear blast.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, originally a collaboration of scientists who worked on developing nuclear weapons, uses the Doomsday Clock to represent our proximity to global catastrophe. With 12 midnight being the apocalypse, the hands of the clock are set forward or back depending on their assessment of geopolitics and environmental factors. Set in 2016, at a perilous 3 minutes to midnight because of the combined threat of climate change and nuclear weapons, the Trump presidency has seen the Doomsday Clock moved forward to 2.5 minutes to midnight.

There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet today. It is 2.5 minutes to midnight. The threat of large- or small-scale nuclear war is as high as it has ever been. And climate crisis is at hand. And Australia seems to be doing what it can to kept these threats high.

Welcome to Rockhampton, where military and mining, coal and camo, are promoted as the economic drivers of the region.

Beyond the confusing promotion of just wars, patriotism, the necessity of defence and the inevitability of war, everyone really wants peace. And yes, we do use electricity and we do drive cars but everyone also wants a clean environment. And while war and extractive industries do provide us our "way of life", very few of us benefit greatly from either industry. Other species have struggles but no other intentionally destroys its own habitat to get there.

I believe that deep down we know that we have to move away from digging up the Earth ‒ and that move will also be a move towards peace. We know we that need to reduce our carbon emissions and work together as a global community. To do that, we need peace. To make peace, we know that we will need to remedy some of the wrongs of the past and build structures based on justice and equality – which are incompatible with war and the destruction of the environment.

At the moment, we struggle to get politicians to commit to immediate environmental targets, which to many of us seem as no-brainers ‒ such as reducing carbon emissions and committing to energy efficiency and renewables. We are forced to fight local campaigns at the coal face, such as to stop Adani in Queensland or gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef. At the same time, it's important to recognise that, unchallenged, military use of these places perpetuates the structures of violence that underpin extractivism which keep us killing each other and polluting the Earth.

It is time for this to stop. It is time for us to include demilitarisation as part of our narrative of uncompromising protection for the Great Barrier Reef. It's time to stop supporting the military use of these regions and, in doing so locally, begin dismantling the global structures of war.

It's time to defend Shoalwater Bay from Defence. Stop Talisman Sabre.

Robin Taubenfeld is a member of Friends of the Earth Brisbane and a national anti-nuclear spokesperson for FoE Australia.


Published in Chain Reaction #136, August 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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