The real threat to our nation is hype, not war

The professional scaremongers among us should take a collective cold shower.

It seems that every day we are regaled with new reasons to fear for our future. Now a report from strategists at the Australian National University warns that our cities could be attacked by seaborne ballistic missiles ``today". Does this mean that we should cancel the milk and paper? Further out, the report warns that North Korea and Iran could unleash long-range missiles at our cities within six years. Should we put off having more kids just in case?

Not to worry. We can be safe, these analysts claim, if we just support the American anti-missile system and spend more than a billion dollars installing missile systems around our capital cities.

Joining in the clamour for greater war spending, the commander of our submarine fleet wants his vessels fitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles so that Jakarta could still be attacked once the F-111 aircraft are retired from service (The Age, January 30, 2004).

It would be cheaper if we simply installed cold showers at the ANU, in the subs and at Parliament House so that the fevered proponents of a regional arms race can cool off. Australia is more likely to be attacked by Martians than have a missile launched at it from North Korea or Iran. Not only do these countries have targets much closer to home, but they would incur such a powerful and destructive reaction from any such attack that the likelihood of it happening is beyond the realm of reasonable possibilities.

Indeed, compared with previous decades, Australians live in relatively peaceful and secure times. Not that the Government would like us to realise it, but the likelihood of us being embroiled in a war not of our own choosing is probably lower than it has ever been.

Moreover, as an isolated and mostly arid island continent, Australia occupies one of the most secure geographic positions on earth. In more than 200 years, white Australians have never faced a serious possibility of invasion and it is unlikely that we ever will. Yet the myth persists, feeding a deep-seated fear that has cost us dearly over the years.

Australian fears partly stem from World War II, when John Howard was a young boy and a Japanese invasion seemed to be a daily danger. Nobody then doubted, in the wake of Singapore's fall, that Australia was facing what John Curtin called "the Battle for Australia". It was a matter of life or death. Australians mostly believed it then and they are regularly encouraged to believe it still.

In 2002, Channel Ten news hailed Private Kingsbury, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his fighting defence on the Kokoda Track, as being ``the man who saved Australia". Curtin too has been hailed by some as "the saviour of Australia", as have General Douglas MacArthur and the US naval forces that won the battle of the Coral Sea.

Despite having so many supposed saviours, the much anticipated battle for Australia was, in fact, never fought.

Instead, the Japanese were content to try to neutralise the military threat that the Australian continent posed to their newly won territorial possessions. With the Pacific practically devoid of friendly naval forces, Australia was more vulnerable than it had ever been in 150 years. Yet the Japanese never pressed home their sudden and unexpected advantage. It is worth wondering why.

There were several compelling and enduring reasons why the feared invasion did not eventuate. First, Australia was too far away and too big to be invaded when Japan was preoccupied with its war in China.

Second, Australia was relatively unattractive as an invasion option, while places such as Malaya and Borneo offered more and could be had for less cost. Moreover, Australia was relatively unimportant in a strategic sense. Even the Americans mostly bypassed Australia when pressing home their advance on Japan. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Japan could not portray an invasion of Australia as being one to liberate its people, as it could do in the case of colonies such as Malaya and the Philippines. As for living space for the fast-expanding Japanese population, there was plenty of space available, and much closer, in Korea and Manchuria.

These decisive factors were not appreciated at the time. Instead, it was felt that Australia had barely escaped with its life and remained in grave peril of another such threat arising.

This conviction underlay the government's urgent postwar action to greatly expand Australia's population. As Arthur Calwell warned when announcing the immigration scheme in 1945, there would be another challenge within 25 years ``to our right to hold this land".

Sixty years on, the paranoia continues.

As we recently saw, the arrival of a dozen or so Kurdish refugees on a tiny fishing boat at Melville Island prompted the Government to impose an air exclusion zone and send three naval ships to the scene to round up the hapless refugees and send them packing amid a lather of defiant declarations about defending Australia's border. While there was a large measure of political calculation in the Government's action, it would not have worked if the fears did not resonate around the leafy streets of suburbia.

Instead of stoking such fears, it's time for a fundamental rethink. The natural defensive advantages that Australia enjoyed in 1942 remain in place today. Our relative isolation was an advantage back then and it remains one today. Our occupation of an island continent, with a greatly boosted population, has made our position even more secure, as have our friendly and mutually beneficial relations with the United States, Japan and China.

It's time that our Government, our defence forces and the growing breed of defence analysts concede this basic reality. Then again, it might just put them out of a job.

The Age, 3 February 2004