Scott Morrison’s latest billion-dollar missile spend was deftly leaked to the media then talked up by ASPI whose sponsors have raked in $51 billion in Defence Department contracts while doling cash to the conflicted “think-tank”. Marcus Rubenstein investigates.
No sooner had Scott Morrison’s new cabinet been sworn in than it was back to business, feeding out distractions to the Canberra press gallery.
Nearly 14 hours before the prime minister announced to the nation that Australia was going to spend a billion dollars on building “our own missiles” Greg Sheridan from The Australian had the scoop—along with The Age/SMH, Nine Newspapers stablemate Australian Financial Review and the ABC. Along with the ranks of metropolitan mainstream media dailies who all fell in line behind the announcement.
And with military precision they all fired off their online reports at 10:30pm… or, to be more precise, 22:30 hrs.
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald both quoted ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) in their coverage as did The Conversation, along with others they listed potential weapons maker partners for this home grown missile mission.
Apart from the glaring fact that none of these companies are actually Australian, most were listed by ASPI in a report it published last year. Of the five potential partner companies being touted by mainstream media— Raytheon (USA), Lockheed Martin (USA), Kongsberg (Norway), Rafeal (Israel) and BAE Systems (UK)—all but one is a long-term financial backer of ASPI.
As is de rigueur there was no mention that ASPI’s enthusiasm for substantial new military expenditure was directed towards spending on weapons made by their sponsors.
A number of media reports included PR handout images from US missile maker Raytheon, which for years was a loyal ASPI sponsor and also the former employer of, recently demoted, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.
The actual announcement was made by the prime minister, not at Parliament House, but at the South Australian facility of Raytheon.
Government access for weapons makers
Since ASPI’s foundation in 2001, when it was created to challenge the policy direction of Defence, it has become more and more commercialised.
This fact was highlighted by ASPI’s founding Executive Director Hugh White, who wrote on the 15th anniversary of its foundation, “The quality of defence policy slumped… [and] ASPI’s focus inevitably swung round to contributing to public debates not government policy-making.”
Under Hugh White’s leadership, ASPI preserved a great deal of independence and only took an average of $28,000 per year in commercial revenue.
In the last financial year, under the leadership of (former Howard Government adviser) Peter Jennings, ASPI raked in $6,953,000 in commercial revenue. Yet it maintains its façade of independence of outside influence.
ASPI sponsor, French-owned Naval Group was awarded the contract for Australia’s controversial $80 billion future submarine project. It has been in the headlines recently after an independent report released in March found the project was “dangerously off track”.
In 2016, when the contract was awarded Jennings, wrote a glowing opinion piece, about his sponsor, under the headline “Vive Australia’s choice of a French submarine”.
The release of the Future Submarines Report was very critical of the entire project and there were suggestions from highly credentialed defence strategists that Australia should walk away from the deal.
In response, ASPI wrote that not only should Naval Group keeps its contract but the Royal Australian Navy should commission un-manned Orca submarines while waiting decades for the French submarines order to be fulfilled.
And who makes the Orca? Another ASPI sponsor, Boeing Defense.
This comes after revelations in March that ASPI had been commissioned to write a report critical of the federal government’s awarding of cloud computing contracts to Australian company Canberra Data Centres (CDC).
As it transpires, ASPI had been commissioned to write the report by lobbying firm Australian Public Affairs (APA); the Commonwealth Lobbyists Register reveals APA represent CDC’s three main commercial rivals.
Last October, ASPI’s Peter Jennings told the ABC, “ASPI’s work as a think tank is genuinely independent” and suggestions that it was controlled by sponsors were “frankly nonsense”.
The massive ASPI payoff
ASPI is not an independent think tank, it is in fact a Commonwealth Company which reports to the parliament through the Defence Ministry. In its latest annual report ASPI singled out the then Defence Minister for her “continuing close personal engagement and support”.
In her first speech as Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds boasted of her close friendship with ASPI’s Peter Jennings.
Clearly ASPI’s boss and his board, which is chaired by former Chief of the Army, Lt Gen (Ret’d) Kenneth Gillespie and includes former Liberal Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, has access to the highest levels of government and the Defence Department.
Since ASPI’s inception it has received sponsorship from 12 manufacturers of weapons and weapons systems. Over that period, they have been awarded 9,423 Defence Department contracts with a total value of $51.2 billion.
This does not include another 49 ASPI sponsors who do not manufacture weapons, yet Department of Finance data, reveals have benefitted from more than $30 billion in defence contracts since 2001.
ASPI’s most recent annual report revealed that in the year before the Covid-19 pandemic, it hosted 142 separate events and meetings, many of them bringing together defence policy makers and defence suppliers.
At one such event in 2019, sponsored by Thales, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds was keynote speaker. Presumably executives from these foreign weapons makers had some level of access to the minister.
Department of Finance figures later revealed that ministerial and department staff were charged $30,723 by ASPI to attend that speech.
This article was originally published in APAC News.