In 1952 the Menzies government passed the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, which banned entry to ‘prohibited area[s]’,  as part of its defence against the ‘red menace’. That act was barely used until 2016, when a group of Christian peace protesters entered the Pine Gap base near Alice Springs.    Jon Piccini reviews Kieran Finnane’s new book about the episode, Peace Crimes, and warns about the dangers of the ubiquitous national security state.


In June 1952, Australian parliament passed the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act (DSU). Four years earlier, the Venona project had unearthed a ring of Soviet spies in Australia, prompting the Chifley government to establish the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and, upon its election in 1949, Robert Menzies’ Liberal party to (ultimately unsuccessfully) ban the Communist Party. The DSU, like ASIO, showed to Australia’s ‘great and powerful friends’ that the red menace was being taken seriously. The Act made it an offence for any person to be on a ‘prohibited area’, concerned with the ‘defence of Australia…or some other part of the Queen’s dominions’. The penalty for non-compliance: seven years jail.

The Act’s architects wanted to make sure that discrete locations – firstly the Montebello Islands, and later the likes of Maralinga and Woomera – isolated outposts in the sprawling Australian outback – could be utilised for testing of British rockets and, later, nuclear weapons: a small step in Menzies’ plan to acquire an Australian bomb. Few would have suspected that the Act would sit on the statute books for over fifty years before its first use, nor that it would target not communist agents, but Christian pacifists.

Peace Pilgrims, 2017. PR handout, via AAP Photos.

On the night of 29 September 2016, clutching musical instruments, mobile phones and bibles, five Australians – Jim and Franz Dowling, Andy Paine, Tim Webb, and Margaret Pestorius – walked through the night from the outskirts of Alice Springs onto one of the Australian and American government’s worst kept secrets. Dubbing themselves Peace Pilgrims, a nod to decades of Christian opposition to war, the five made their way through an exterior fence, climbing to a vantage point from which they could view the entire Pine Gap base. There, they performed a lament for the victims of war, streamed live on Facebook. In this mashing of old and new, they sought to protest a new type of war.

The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap commenced operations in 1970, principally tasked with detecting ballistic missile launches. Since the advent of the War on Terror in 2001, however, the base has served very different purposes. In particular, the facility’s satellite links are now instrumental in targeting drone strikes, of which the United States deployed 57 between 2001 and 2008, and a whopping 563 between 2008 and 2016. During this time, Pine Gap doubled its staff from 400 to 800 and increased its number of antennae from 18 to 38. This was no longer a defensive project, in the eyes of its detractors, but part of an aggressive war.

Kieran Finnane’s new book, Peace Crimes, tells a David and Goliath struggle between these principled war resisters and their powerful opponents. A long-time Territorian and reporter, Finnane had a bird’s eye view into the Pilgrim’s trials. Historical accounts of Australia’s anti-war movement tend to give short shrift to religious actors: their numbers were small, their actions scattered and ineffective, and their mixture of beliefs – simultaneously opposed to war and abortion, for example – mean they do not easily fit into the post-1960s left-right political landscape. Yet, in Finnane’s hands these zealous individuals become humanised, their personal politics and sacrifices rendered less outlandish and otherworldly than urgent and reasonable.

Dimity Hawkins, one of the original ICAN founders(C) looks down the line of (L-R) Rose and Karina Lester, daughters of the late Yankunytjatjara Elder Yami Lester; Richard Tanter, ICAN Chair; Gem Romuld, ICAN Outreach Coordinator in Melbourne. Image credit MAL FAIRCLOUGH via AAP Photos.

Alongside the Peace Pilgrims, we meet academics like Richard Tanter, a long term anti-base campaigner and former president of the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and politicians like Scott Ludlam. Having fought hard against a tightening of the DSU prompted by the failed prosecution of a similarly motivated group – Christians Against All Terrorism, who had broken into the base in 2005 – Ludlam and Tanter were called as witness at the Peace Pilgrims’ trials to contextualise their actions. Important sections of the book detail the Pilgrims’ 2017 trials, which they saw as a question of international law and morality, of putting the Australian government on trial for war crimes, while their prosecutors represented their actions as wilful disobedience. By invoking the Nuremburg Principles, Indigenous dispossession and much else besides, the Pilgrims’ self-defence hoped to render their actions as the only possible response to forestall continued acts of mass violence. The Commonwealth government, represented by high-priced silks, painted the Pilgrims’ actions as politically motivated law breaking, incompatible with a democratic society.

It is hard not to sympathise with the Pilgrims, as they struggle to justify their actions using an appropriate legal language, while facing the constant interjection and rebuttal of the government’s lawyers. After the Pilgrims’ witnesses had provided their testimony, the jury was told to disregard it by the presiding judge, as it did not satisfy the legal test for their defenses. There are almost laughable moments, such as the dexterity with which the Crown’s prosecutor, Michael McHugh, dismissed the Pilgrims’ actions as both redundant and pointless – so as to challenge their claim of acting to defend others – and simultaneously a threat to national security which warranted maximum punishment. Luckily, the presiding judge ruled against a custodial sentence for the five, judging their actions to be ‘at the bottom of the scale of offending’ – these were not terrorists or spies, but pacifists, after all.

In all, Finnane’s book offers a compelling reason to think historically about what the War on Terror has done to Australian politics and society. Declared in 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, it is now Australia’s longest war. And while few Australian combat troops serving on its increasingly numerous battlefields, Pine Gap’s place in the US drone program – and its civilian consequences – render us deeply culpable. We have also become much less tolerant of dissent. More than 50 federal statutes targeting loosely defined terrorists were passed with bipartisan support just in the conflict’s first ten years, more than in any other Western nation. These laws have empowered authorities like ASIO in unprecedented ways, curdled public fears and animosities, and emboldened governments to take the hardest line possible against critics. Peace Crimes offers a warning: Australian governments are prone to illiberalism, whether in the Cold War period that birthed the DSU or now, and only brave dissenters can hold them to account. Are we listening?

Peace crimes is available via UQP.
Jon Piccini
Jon Piccini

Jon Piccini is a historian at Australian Catholic University. He writes on Australian political and social movement history from a global perspective. His most recent book is Human Rights in Twentieth-Century Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2019).