Tomorrow, in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Pine Gap military base protesters go on trial. Nothing unusual in that — the US Australian military facility has long been a focal point for discontent, and the Alice Springs courts regularly process defendants charged with trespass, assault and other petty crime charges. And nearly all of these cases are dealt with a slap on the wrist for the protestors, or at worst, a fine.
But Bryan Law, Donna Mulhearn, Adele Goldie, and James Dowling, who are appearing in the Alice Springs court tomorrow, face jail terms because on 9 December, 2005, they managed to gain access to Pine Gap by cutting a fence, climbing onto the roof of a building and taking photographs of the facility.
This quartet of activists self-described as “Christian Pacificists” say they wanted to conduct a citizens’ inspection of Pine Gap. They, like many Australians, are opposed to the war in Iraq, and believe that Australian participation in the Iraq war has made this country more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
But their short and harmless foray into the Pine Gap has been taken very seriously by the Howard Government and its law enforcement agencies. No easy ride through the Alice Springs Magistrates Court for this lot. Instead, the Commonwealth has dusted off a 1952 law, passed by the Menzies government at the height of the Cold War, and called the Defence Powers (Special Undertakings) Act 1952. Breach this Act and you can face jail terms of up to seven years.
This is the law which allowed the Menzies government to keep from public view vast tracts of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory where nuclear tests, including the infamous Maralinga tests, were carried out. It hasn’t been used by the Commonwealth for years. In fact, according to some academic reports, this is the first time anyone has been prosecuted under this law — a remarkable fact given it has been around for 55 years and there have been literally hundreds of Pine Gap protests.
But then, Philip Ruddock is the most aggressive attorney-general this country has seen in years. As he showed when he was immigration minister, he’s prepared to use the full legislative arsenal at his disposal to enforce government policy, even if the law in question is obscure and of questionable validity in this day and age.
The importance of this case in the context of a civil liberties and human rights is evidenced by the fact that high-profile Melbourne barrister and former Federal Court judge Ron Merkel is heading the legal team for the activists.
Many Australians might not agree with direct action protest of the type undertaken by these four activists, but there’s a larger issue in this case. Should governments be using draconian Cold War laws on the citizenry of Australia almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down?