Australia's police and military must not become the same thing

By Dr Jude McCulloch - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

ANZAC day provides the space to reflect on the role of the military in our society. The Australian military, unlike the military in countries such as Indonesia, has overwhelmingly been confined to dealing with external enemies during times of war and has not been used as a repressive force against its own citizens. The Australian Constitution contains provisions that imply a clear division between the military and the police. In addition, it is an important principle of Australian democracy that the military is under the direct control of the civil authority.

The establishment of paramilitary units in state police forces during the late 1970s has blurred the lines between the police and the military. These paramilitary units, like Victoria's Special Operations Group, train with the military, include former members of the military, use a wide range of military weapons and equipment, and train and use extremely high levels of force. In short, the units straddle the line between the two organisations. Groups like the SOG were originally set up as counter terrorist groups and it was on this basis that their special training and equipment were justified. Despite this the SOG, and its counterparts in other states, has been used in a wide and increasing range of traditional policing duties.

The blurring of the military and police functions is of great significance. Philosophically police are duty bound to protect life and to operate using only minimum force. The military, on the other hand, are trained to kill and may use maximum force to overcome an enemy. In addition, paramilitary police, unlike the military proper, are operationally independent from the government. Police command, rather than an elected government, decide where and when this 'military' force will be used.

The influence and impact of the paramilitary units moves beyond their direct sphere of operation. The paramilitary units are considered elite by other police and so provide role models for police, who are culturally predisposed to admire macho action-oriented methods of policing. In Victoria, the police hierarchy has greatly encouraged and facilitated the passing on of paramilitary tactics to other police by placing former SOG members in charge of firearms and public order training, and arranging regular secondments to other policing areas where further opportunities arise for paramilitary methods to be taught and operationalised. In addition, the SOG has been used as a testing ground for new weapons, which are subsequently absorbed into everyday policing. Many of the most controversial and problematic policing incidents in Victoria since the early 1980s - fatal shootings, forced entry raids, mass strip searches of nightclub patrons, pressure point neck holds and the batoning of peaceful protestors - are directly linked to the SOG or its influence over operational tactics.

The establishment of paramilitary police units within state police forces and the integration of their methods and tactics into everyday policing have taken place almost entirely in secret allowing little opportunity for public debate. The Victorian SOG, although not formally part of the military, is nevertheless a significant paramilitary force virtually indistinguishable in terms of the weapons and levels of force at its disposal from the military proper. The integration of SOG and SOG tactics into everyday policing has occurred without any appropriate recognition of the important constitutional and social traditions that have ensured that military force is not used against citizens except in the most extreme circumstances.

A close ideological and operational alliance between the police and the military is usually associated with repressive governments. Paramilitary police shift from the police mandate to use only minimum force and instead become adept at the soldier's craft of killing. In addition, paramilitary police are trained to approach demonstrators as terrorists to be punished as enemies of the state. The establishment of groups like the SOG has undermined the important principle that military forces are subordinate to and under the control of the elected government. The consequences of using military force to repress citizens and of having military forces, which are outside the direct and immediate control of the elected government, are tragically apparent in countries such as Indonesia. If Australia is to continue the long democratic traditions that have avoided the use of military force against its citizens, the position and role of the paramilitary police needs to be seriously examined and checked.


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