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Why the Defence advertisements at the Canberra Airport should be taken down

The newcomer to Canberra finds much to wonder at. Do kangaroos have a death wish? What is the problem with having lakeside cafes in the Parliamentary Triangle? Why is the traffic-light cycle so interminable when there is so little traffic? 

To these, let's add another, more serious, question: why are visitors arriving by air greeted by advertisements from defence industries?  

An advertising poster featuring a submarine at Canberra Airport.
An advertising poster featuring a submarine at Canberra Airport. Photo: Rohan Thomson

This must surely be the only airport in the world where passengers waiting at the luggage carousel are encouraged are encouraged to contemplate snapping up a multibillion-dollar submarine or enrolling in a program of military aircraft training.

This advertising is, at best, inappropriate. Generally, airports are considered gateways to their cities, giving tourists their first favourable impression of the city's identity. As travel author Pico Iyer put it: "Airports say a lot about a place because they are both a city's business card and its handshake: they tell us what a community yearns to be as well as what it really is." 

An advertising poster featuring a warship at Canberra Airport.
An advertising poster featuring a warship at Canberra Airport.  Photo: Rohan Thomson

Why then should our airport carry advertising implying that Canberra is a weapons industry hub? Of course Defence is part of Canberra. The institutions of national security and "border protection" are many and increasingly prominent. But what about other, more attractive images – the city's extraordinarily rich offerings of national political and cultural institutions and its superb natural environment? Are these not more representative of the national capital? When questioned, the people in airport management say they reject advertising that is "offensive". And certainly the defence images that have been on display above the Qantas baggage carousels are anodyne: for example, a submarine sturdily ploughing through the ocean (courtesy of Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems); or fresh-faced young men preparing for aircraft training (endorsed by the Swiss Pilatus, Hawker Pacific and the US-based defence giant Lockheed Martin).

But this is the point. The very inoffensiveness of these images masks the reality that the parent companies of the industries based in Canberra manufacture weapons of war. Their advertising may not be offensive to the marketing executives in Brindabella Park, or to the politicians on the hill or public servants in Russell (at whom the advertisements are presumably targeted). But they do offend others. 

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What, one wonders, do refugees from war-ravaged countries make of a national capital that claims to be a "Refugee welcome zone" but welcomes also advertising by a company that boasts: "Delivering Australia's border patrol capability"? 

And if Canberra finally becomes an international airport, is this the image we want to project to the world? If we arrived at, say, Pyongyang airport, and met comparable displays of weaponry, would we not conclude that we were entering a heavily militarised society?

A defence industry advertising poster at Canberra Airport.
A defence industry advertising poster at Canberra Airport. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Of course, it can be argued that weapons are essential to Australia's national security (though it is a matter for debate whether submarines are). And those in the strategic community argue that weapons are value-neutral. Just as guns in the United States are not the cause of mass killings – it is the evil men into whose hands they fall that turn guns into killing machines – so the weapons manufacturers cannot be held accountable for the way their products are deployed. Only if they knowingly supply them to those who use them illegally can they be held responsible. 

But we need only to look at the terrible escalation of conflicts in the Middle East to question this argument. Weapons may not cause wars but they certainly fuel them. Wars do not last for years without the constant injection of arms. And these arms are mostly manufactured, not by the so-called "death cults" or warring governments that between them inflict dire harm on civilian populations, but by Western countries.

According to Amnesty International, the six biggest arms exporters are China, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and the United States. The US alone accounts for about 30 per cent of conventional arms trade in terms of value. Perhaps the new (December 2014) Arms Trade Treaty will manage to regulate this international trade in conventional arms – from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships – but it remains to be seen. For the moment, the biggest US defence companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world. 

The cause of general disarmament, that is, the relinquishing of national arsenals in the interests of world peace, was once part of the political mainstream. It seemed unstoppable in the 1920s as the world reeled from the Great War, a catastrophe that many at the time believed was made possible, if not caused, by an arms race between the Great Powers. But if general disarmament is now dismissed as a pipedream – the kind of thing that grey-haired peaceniks naively advocate – this does not mean that we should normalise war. Nor should we collude in sanitising the industries that profit from making the weapons that make warfare so destructive. 

This is surely what the advertisements at Canberra airport do. They do not shape the prolonged defence procurement decision-making processes of the national government, unless our politicians are unduly subject to subliminal influences. But they do reinforce the public message that war and the expanding national security state is part of our national landscape – normal, unobjectionable and beyond critique. The particular advertisements may change from time to time – contracts turn over monthly – but it is time for the airport to stop taking any advertising from defence industries.

Joan Beaumont is author of the multiple-award winning Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (2013).

The No Airport Arms Ads campaign is being launched on Saturday 29 August at 10.30am in Civic Square.

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