Weapons or Well-being: Dr Margie Beavis, Forum at Melbourne University, August 2017

Weapons or Well-being

Melbourne University Forum on Lockheed Martin Collaboration

In August 2017, a forum was held to discuss Melbourne University’s collaboration with Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest weapons manufacturer. “Weapons or Wellbeing” was put on by the student branch of MAPW (the Medical Association for Prevention of War). On the panel I was joined by Professor Ricard Tanter, from the Nautilus Institute and Alex Adney-Brown, a PhD student studying the lived experience of drone attacks.

Professor Tanter spoke about Lockheed Martin’s involvement in many scandals over the years. Bribes and contributions made from the late 1950s to the 1970s caused huge political controversy in Japan, and also in West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. He described the company’s involvement in providing interrogation services (through subsidiaries) in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Mamdough Habib, a former Sydney taxi driver spent over three years at Guantanamo before being released in January 2005. Lockheed Martin provided private contract interrogators at Guantanamo, some of whom are alleged to have tortured Mr Habib so badly he received a large confidential settlement from the Australian government after his release.

Alex Adney–Brown spoke of her visits to Afghanistan to talk with communities who had suffered under US drone attacks. She told of communities whose traditional ways of living had fundamentally altered. Many had lost family members due to targeting errors.  In some places adolescents could no longer gather to chat and hang out as they had in the past. Gatherings were viewed as risky behaviour, as groups were often targeted.

Alex also visited the United States, and spoke to ex-military personnel who had guided drones in the past. Many of these individuals were left with significant and ongoing psychological issues, having been seriously damaged by their role in drone attacks.

I spoke about the ethics of weapons manufacturers. Pope Francis calls them the “Merchants of Death” while Tim Costello describes Australia’s push to become a major weapons exporter as “Exporting death and profiteering from bloodshed”. The University of Melbourne had responded to a letter from the MAPW students group, claiming “fundamental research can have many applications, and it is impossible to foresee all future uses and consequences”. However this statement seems very disingenuous, given in its original press release the University crowed about “deepening and broadening its engagement with the defence industry”.

Another issue is the “opportunity cost” of weapons research. Focusing expertise and funds in one area means there is less research effort and funds for other areas such as diplomacy and peacemaking, public health interventions, renewable energy and other critical issues.

Job creation is often used as a justification, but a number of studies show that, for the same investment, many more jobs are created in health, education and renewable energy. Military jobs are politically appealing, as they can be demonstrably be localised to one electorate, or one region. The submarine contracts in South Australia are a classic illustration.

Undue influence and distortion of priorities is also a major risk. The concept of ‘public good’ can get lost in the face of large sums of money and sophisticated lobbying. The arms industry is notoriously corrupt, with Transparency International finding 40% of all bribes globally relate to weapons sales. Lockheed Martin spent $18.6 million on lobbying and political donations in 2015 alone. In Australia our political donation laws are very opaque, both at state and federal level.  Less than a quarter of donations to the ALP and the Coalition in the 2016 election were clearly attributed.

The Australian government has signed up to spend $17 billion purchasing Joint Strike Fighter F-35 planes (and approximately twice that maintaining them). This plane has a disastrous record- way over budget, way over time, massive and numerous technical problems and a design clearly unsuited to a true defence role in Australia. Canada is talking of cancelling its contract. Lockheed Martin has a long history of setting up defence partnerships in client countries, and these smaller local organisations can lobby in support of major purchases. Melbourne University is a powerful voice at federal level, which means the $13 million offered by Lockheed Martin to set up an engineering lab may be a bit of a bargain.

Finally the Melbourne University media release states it is in an “ideal position to assist Lockheed Martin with their research goals” and that they “look forward to joining with Lockheed Martin in support of the significant defence effort presently underway in Australia”.  Links to national security mean that normal oversight and accountability are obscured. With this collaboration Melbourne University is clearly joining with Lockheed Martin in the weapons trade. For a once proud institution this is a very shameful decision.

Margaret Beavis is a former President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War