As it did in the 1940s, Darwin once again finds itself in the limelight for reasons that have less to do with its natural attractions, and more to do with its strategic geography. This week saw the debate over the ownership of Darwin Port reignited by bipartisan calls to nationalise it on security grounds. At the same time, Darwin was floated as the potential site of U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments. While the government shrugged off both questions, each points to a conclusion which bitter experience has taught Territorians: geography is destiny.
Visitors are often stunned to learn of Darwin’s war-time experience. The Bombing of Darwin hardly features in our national consciousness and remains overshadowed in our museums and history books. But beyond its bombing – which saw more bombs dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbour – the city played a critical role in the Allied war effort, providing a vital resupply point for the U.S. to reposition B17 strategic bombers to the Philippines a month before the outbreak of the Pacific War. In pitched battles to keep the enemy at bay from the Australian homeland, Allied combat units’ radios crackled with the voices of their mates in Darwin. And of course with the approaching twentieth anniversary of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), we have even more recent reminders of the city’s strategic headquartering and logistic support role for our country.
Australia’s strategic circumstances have fortunately changed radically since the Second World War. Only one lifetime from the horrors of total war, we are finally finding our place, security and identity as a part of Asia. Less fortunately, the regional rules-based order which formed the foundation of our three decades of uninterrupted economic growth and security from conventional military threats, is crumbling. The fault line is deepening with each passing day of a trade war which can have no winners, and a strategic competition in which Australia is itself becoming the object of contention for the first time since Federation.
In this context, a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Malcolm Davis paints a grim picture of the state of defence and critical infrastructure in northern Australia. He argues that it’s too sparse, too vulnerable, that our internal supply lines from southern force concentrations are too long and that hypersonic and intermediate-range ballistic missile technology risk making northern Australia the ‘Maginot Line of the 21st century’. Davis warns that these modern weapon systems could ‘devastate our northern base infrastructure, traversing the air-sea gap before F-35As can be scrambled from Tindal.’
Davis rightly calls for the next Defence White Paper to take our northern defence infrastructure much more seriously. In such a scenario, Darwin will become even more vital to support Australian, Allied and partner patrol boats and unmanned surface vessels operating into the region. All of which would require suitable civilian and military infrastructure, which remain shamefully under-funded.
Which is why it’s such welcome news that the Northern Territory government has announced that it is co-funding a Darwin ship lift facility, in a move that will strengthen our northern maritime infrastructure at a time of such degradation in our strategic environment. A ship lift is used to lift vessels out of the water so they can be serviced, repaired or stored, including for safety during cyclones. The 103 metre ship lift will be capable of servicing large vessels from industries such as offshore petroleum, fishing, pearling and Defence.
This forward-looking project will not only generate hundreds of jobs in Darwin and develop a local marine industry that will support up to 4,500 jobs and inject $3.5 billion into the local economy, but also service Australian Border Force and Navy offshore patrol boats. It could also do so for allied and partner navies and commercial vessels from across the Indo-Pacific.
The elephant in the room is the shortsighted and quite frankly dangerous 2015 decision by the NT’s Country Liberal Government to lease the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company for 99 years. In the current geopolitical climate, renewed concerns about this lease of Darwin Port are understandable. The concept was foolish and the deal was totally mishandled by both the Country Liberal Party NT Government and the Coalition Federal Government. It was summed up by then PM Turnbull’s attempt to dismiss the justified outrage by claiming that Darwin ‘wasn’t a military port’.
In picking up the pieces, however, we should tread carefully. Expropriation is a far-reaching move which could have undesirable implications for Australia’s image as a reliable destination of foreign investment, particularly at a time when the economy undergoes its slowest growth in recent times. The simple truth is that whilst we welcome foreign investment such as the $200 million hotel that Chinese company Landbridge is building in Darwin, we should not be selling our strategic assets.
Fortunately there is a new asset that could be supported with real Federal funding, in Darwin, right now and that is the Australian owned and operated ship lift. The current Federal government loves to chest beat about national security so no doubt it can see the strategic sense in having our military vessels cared for in Darwin, rather than Singapore or a Southern port. A ship lift should be just the start of serious and sustained re-investment in the north’s civilian and defence infrastructure to enable it to fulfil its role as a regional hub for Australia’s trade, diplomatic and defence engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
If geography is destiny, our national defence must always begin in the north, or risk having it all go south.
Luke Gosling OAM MP is the Federal Member for Solomon (NT) and Chair of the Asia-Pacific Trade Taskforce
Published in The Australian on 12 August, 2019.