Australian military stages “anti-terrorist” exercise in Sydney

Australia’s military conducted a training exercise in Sydney’s central Martin Place at 1 a.m. last Thursday, involving about 50 heavily-armed Special Air Services (SAS) commandos. It was one of the most visible mobilisations of troops in a city centre during any of the frequent domestic exercises conducted since 2001 on the pretext of combatting potential terrorist threats.

Although staged on a far smaller scale, there were strong similarities to the martial law-style lockdown imposed on the US city of Boston two weeks earlier, which included curfews, house-to-house searches, roadblocks, and the shutdown of transport.

During the hour-long exercise, soldiers effectively sealed off the surrounding area, which houses major banks and finance houses. According to the Daily Telegraph, soldiers “kept guard at checkpoints”, “secured the area” and maintained “sentry positions.”

The Telegraph described the scene as follows: “[A] convoy of dark Toyota 4WDs, with their spotlights blazing, sped down Macquarie St and burst onto Martin Place to unload a team of highly specialised Australian Defence Force counter-terrorism soldiers.

“With rifles drawn, faces covered in balaclavas and gas masks, and night vision goggles perched on their helmets, about 50 camouflaged soldiers fanned out through Martin Place in near-perfect silence in search of mock terrorists that had overtaken the underground Martin Place train station.”

A media alert issued by the military two days earlier referred to “counter- terrorism training exercises,” justifying the operation in broad terms, saying it was “conducted to ensure that the Australian Defence Force has the highest level of capability to support Australia’s national interests.” This language raises many issues. Exactly what are these “national interests” and what other preparations are being made by the government and the military to protect them?

According to the media alert, the Martin Place operation was just one of a number to be conducted in and around Sydney between April 30 and May 10, some in conjunction with the state police. There was to be a “maritime training exercise” around the waters surrounding two Sydney Harbour naval bases, an exercise at Sydney Airport, and helicopter training around the Holsworthy army base, Parramatta gaol and the Sydney International Equestrian Centre.

“The soldiers involved in these exercises will be carrying weapons and tactical equipment, and will also use simulation ammunition and hand-held pyrotechnics as part of the training,” the alert stated, but “local residents and bystanders should not be alarmed if they notice an increased movement of vehicles, military personnel and helicopters.”

Defence Media Operations refused to answer a written list of questions from the World Socialist Web Site about the exercises, including about which units were involved, when the operation was planned, whether the frequency of exercises would increase in the light of the Boston bombings, and what legal powers were invoked.

The defence media office would only confirm that exercises were conducted “in and around Sydney” and that “all relevant authorities were consulted.” Its email message concluded: “In order to protect operational techniques, tactics and procedures, Defence is unable to provide imagery or further detail regarding this activity.”

Wide legal powers do exist to deploy the military internally, along the lines seen in Boston. Military callout legislation was introduced, with no public debate, in 2000, on the pretext of protecting the Sydney Olympics, and expanded in 2006, in the name of shielding the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

In an “emergency,” two government ministers or the armed forces chief can call out the military. Soldiers can then can seize buildings, places and means of transport, detain people, search premises and seize possessions. If the ministers declare a “general security area,” these powers expand to include personal searches, erection of barriers and stopping means of transport. If a “designated area” is declared within a general security zone, troops can control all movements of traffic and people, and issue directions to individuals.

Military personnel can also interrogate people and order the handing over of documents. No one has the legal right to refuse on the grounds of self-incrimination. Instead, they can be jailed for non-compliance.

These powers can be invoked in broad and vague circumstances—a supposed threat to “Commonwealth interests” or “critical infrastructure,” or the danger of undefined “domestic violence.” These terms could cover any eruption of major social unrest. They go well beyond combatting terrorism, which has also been defined in sweeping terms, with the potential to cover many traditional forms of political or industrial protest.

Since 2001, military-police operations have been conducted every year to accustom public opinion to the sight of heavily-armed troops in cities and suburbs. Far from scaling back these exercises, the Labor governments of Rudd and Gillard have widened their scope, beyond “counter-terrorism.”

In Canberra last July, for example, residents of suburban Belconnen were subjected to low-flying helicopter movements and simulated bomb explosions. That exercise was held, according to a military statement, to ensure that “the highest level of capability” existed for “times of civil emergency.”

Two weeks later, the army’s Special Operations Command conducted a fortnight of “maritime counter-terrorism and emergency response scenario training” around Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. The purpose was said to be wider than responding to a terrorist threat. Special Operations Commander Australia, Major General Gus Gilmore, said the military “provides support to civil authorities, should it be required in the event of a civil emergency.”

Over the past decade, the SAS has spearheaded the Australian involvement in the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, specialising in night-time raids on homes, in which countless civilians have been killed. During the same period, two SAS contingents have been established for domestic interventions—Tactical Assault Group (TAG)-East, based in Sydney, and TAG-West, based in Perth.

The simultaneous deployment of the SAS at home and abroad underscores the close connection between the drive to war—with the Gillard government unconditionally backing Washington’s preparations for war against China—and plans to suppress popular resistance to the agenda of militarism and austerity.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is acutely aware of the potential for political and social unrest. In 2011, she personally held a discussion with Australian Federal Police chief Tony Negus to review the measures that would be taken in response to riots like those that had just occurred in Britain (see: “In wake of British riots, Australian government preparing for youth unrest”).