Lethal Weapons: The Violent Politics Of Australian Defence Policy

It was hard to miss, and that was kind of the point. As if to really ram home the “potency” argument made in the PM’s press release, the front page of Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph featured a turgid surface-to-air missile, flanked by two smaller silver missiles, ejaculated from somewhere in the far north of South Australia. It didn’t really matter that the accompanying announcement was a recycling of Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 defence plan. It wasn’t about the policy detail, but the violent, gendered, racist politics it invokes. 

The phallic frontpage imagery is no accident, as Carol Cohn and other feminist thinkers have long noted. The “entwining metaphors of masculinity with judgements of legitimacy and power” (1) is an age-old political tactic and component of warfare. In this announcement, the Government positions itself as the masculine protector, defending the country with a bloated 2% of GDP ($270bn over the next decade) defence budget, more men in uniform, and now an $800m long range missile from the US Navy. As Australians, we’re positioned as defenceless, in need of armed protection from the “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” world surrounding us. 

This is a politics that, like many of the Government’s tactics, is also founded in violence, racism, and fear. The Government’s announcement echoes Cold War era logics of mutually assured destruction and the Red Scare: we need “capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia,” warns Morrison. The identities of these “potential adversaries” needs no clarification. They are already pre-formed in the Australian psyche, shaped by a centuries-long politics of racism and fear peddled against migrants. 

As noted by Bernard Keane, there isn’t actually any new money in this announcement. If our neighbours (and we all know who Morrison is dog-whistling here) were really all that threatening, you’d think that they’d actually invest some new cash instead of simply performing this missile waving exercise. Nevertheless, the existing $270bn – a spend that has received bipartisan support from the ALP – is an astronomical waste of public funding, particularly in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession. 

There is also no evidence that shows having a bigger and ‘better’ defence arsenal actually deters violence, or that it creates peace. In fact, there is lots of evidence to the contrary. This kind of military escalation by one country leads to broader regional arms races, leading to an assessment that military expenditure hikes have negative effects on regional peace and security. Parallel theories like nuclear deterrence lack proof they ever worked, and much that suggests it has been harmful. In a world where the power to harm has also wielded by a range of actors other than states, capital and fire-intensive defence strategies are not effective for responding to violence posed by non-state actors. It’s also bad for Australians domestically, because when countries increase their military budgets, they decrease investments in vital sectors like public health and negatively impact economic growth.

Such announcements therefore come at a big price, quite separate to the stated $270bn investment. The escalation of violence that it invokes makes Australians less safe, driving further wedges between Australia and its neighbours, driving us closer into a dangerous alliance with Donald Trump, encouraging regional arms races (that honestly, we’re most certainly going to lose anyway), and depleting much needed public resources. 

Much of this comes down to understandings of power. For Morrison, Trump, and many others, power is synonymous with violence – the ability to use “lethal” force against “adversaries”. To be powerful, in their view, is to be able to compel and dominate others through this force. This compulsion is inherently violent. It breeds isolation, division and disconnection, an us-versus-them mentality that further bunkerises our international and domestic politics. 

Hannah Arendt, a political theorist who developed her thinking in the midst of her own displacement as a German Jew during World War II, sees such an understanding as wildly mistaken. “Power and violence are opposites,” she says. “Where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance” (2). In contrast, she argues that power is about the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert with one another (3).

This argument should be a warning to Morrison and others. Only so much can be compelled through domination, the use of violence, and long range missiles. Real power, as Arendt argues, is forged through connection. It relies on collective efforts and communication. When Morrison invokes violence, as this defence announcement does, he abdicates real power.

To be a powerful political community requires connection. Rather than a drawing of more divisions, the pointing of more arms outwards, it requires policies that enable us to build relationships, and act in concert. $270bn could provide an enormous stimulus to that process. That might look like standing with Pacific neighbours in the fight against climate change – itself a major security threat – by fulfilling our commitments to the Green Climate Fund, while also ending our own reliance on fossil fuels that drive climate disaster around the world. It means reviving Australia’s foreign aid budget from its current historically low levels, thus demonstrating to our counterparts in our region and around the world that we care about our collective wellbeing and security. It means focusing on diplomacy and coalition building. It means investing in peace and security initiatives like the investigation into the Rohingya genocide, rather than undermining them. And when conflict has broken out, it means investing in safe pathways to asylum, not using our defence forces to turn boats around and imprison people indefinitely. This is how Australia can exercise real power internationally. 

We also have reparations that need to be made domestically. We need to listen and be led by First Nations communities, including committing to a Treaty and paying the rent. Across the board – health, poverty, homelessness, education, manufacturing, joblessness – huge domestic investments could also be made with this money. This defence investment comes at a massive opportunity cost. $270bn on armed force is $270bn that is not invested in the health and wellbeing of our communities. 

Instead, we need to invest in policies that demonstrate solidarity and care, at home and abroad. This is what will draw us together, and provide a foundation on which to build real power.


(1) Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddick (2004) ‘A feminist ethical perspective on weapons of mass destruction’ in Schail H. Hashmi and Steven P. Lee (eds.), Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 408.

(2) Hannah Arendt (1970) On Violence, San Diego; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 56.

(3) Arendt, On Violence, 178.