Queenslanders cop the bill for Land Forces
It was a seemingly innocuous Thursday afternoon in South Brisbane. Picnickers relaxed in the parks, commuters rushed around on their different modes of transport, hospitality staff around their kitchens. And military vehicles began loading into the Brisbane Convention Centre. Actually that last bit is maybe not that usual. The vehicles were being readied for the Land Forces Defence Expo, an international weapons sales conference that was staged between October 4-6. Land Forces was held at the Convention Centre due to the generosity of its “host sponsor” the Queensland state government.
As the vehicles began to enter, something else unexpected happened. Two young women jumped on top of an EPE Hunter Wolf small unmanned military vehicle which was being towed into the centre. It would have been a surprise to many, but obviously not everyone. Because instantly, from the South Brisbane police station, eight police officers appeared to surround the vehicle, drag down the women and arrest them.
It was the first, but certainly not last, appearance of the 2022 Land Forces police taskforce. As that first Thursday evening (six days before Land Forces actually began!) went on, more and more police appeared. They drove laps around the Convention Centre, stopping to question anyone loitering nearby. They parked up outside Musgrave Park, stopping and searching every vehicle that exited the park or Jagera Hall. And then, late that night, they appeared in convoys flanking trucks that drove through the suburbs of Brisbane up to the back dock of the Convention Centre. They weren’t there just to keep an eye out either – with lights flashing, sirens blaring and motorbike cops speeding ahead to block intersections, the convoy raced through red lights at about 80km/h.
Most of the large weapons being displayed on the Land Forces shop floor probably made it into the Convention Centre unimpeded that night. But it wasn’t mission completed for the cops. As protesters gathered over the weekend for a program of workshops and entertainment, police were constantly lurking nearby. Cop cars frequently sat parked outside the protesters’ base at Jagera Hall. Most drivers leaving there were “randomly” drug and alcohol tested, their cars inspected for defects. My wife’s car was one of those stopped one night – a traffic cop crawled under the car until he could find a reason to write a ticket, tyres worn on the inside being the justification he was looking for in the end. For those unfamiliar, this is an extremely common tactic of police trying to restrict protest. I have scarcely ever in my life heard of cops inspecting cars for defects in any other context, but it is entirely to be expected at a protest – where police are not supposed to actually stop you from protesting but will look for any other avenue to restrict or arrest you.
By the Tuesday morning, when the Land Forces expo actually began, the police and private security presence had reached its apex. There were beat cops, traffic cops on motorbikes, Tactical Response Group in bullet proof vests, police negotiators in polo shirts.
They weren’t just hanging around the Convention Centre either – about a kilometre away, cops pulled over a car and trailer. They obviously had done their homework/surveillance, because it was indeed headed towards Land Forces with a hot pink model tank ready to block the entrance. They arrested two people who were in the car, and detained and questioned a few onlookers. At times during the conference protesters ventured into the nearby Southbank precinct to try to engage visitors in a bit of candid conversation. To their surprise, they found the entire area awash with police waiting to intervene. One person was arrested for public nuisance in Southbank.
Meanwhile, back at the Convention Centre you could be forgiven for thinking it was not a defence expo but a fence expo. Three temporary fences had been successively erected outside the main entrance – a one metre barrier by the stairs, then two three metre cyclone fences, the second one made opaque by sheets of blue plastic covering the entire face.
Amazingly, an hour or so into the convention and security decided that wasn’t enough. So they erected a new fence and told protesters they had to move to the other side. Local councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan refused – saying that a public footpath does not cease being public footpath just because one erects a temporary fence on a whim. Police disagreed, and our local government representative was arrested for trespassing on government property.
The arrests over the subsequent days were for similarly minor infringements – fake blood (easily washed off) spilled on the walls of the convention centre or a car containing former defence minister/current weapons industry lobbyist Christopher Pyne; an intellectually disabled woman arrested for public nuisance. Protesters attempting to push the line to any extent were quickly met by the many police present.
The next morning I arrived early. There weren’t many protesters there, but police were ready all the same. At one point I was standing alone holding a sign, surrounded by seven cops. Other police were milling about keeping an eye on the rest of our small group, while two security guards patrolled each of the Convention Centre’s many locked doors.
There was a kind of poetic justice to the Convention Centre being made to look like a militarised checkpoint – bringing home to Land Forces delegates the reality of what their products are used for around the world and a small taste of the humiliating reality of that being your day to day experience. But ultimately, security checks may be an inconvenience for those who pass through them, but their real purpose is felt by those they exclude – in this case Queensland citizens who were footing the bill for Land Forces but not privy to seeing what deals get done there.
That day, a small group of protesters kept vigil at the convention centre (of course accompanied by police and security), but the majority of the Disrupt Land Forces crew hit the road for a tour of weapons facilities around the city – including, I should note, a protest at NIOA led by Warlpiri elder Uncle Ned Hargraves against NIOA’s contract supplying guns to police like the one that killed Yuendemu teenager Kumanjayi Walker. A convoy of police cars was dispatched to dutifully follow us to each location, and of course by the end of the day’s trading at the expo they were back to man the exits.
The third day was much the same – a squadron of security guards watching the convention centre from very early in the morning, joined by several dozen police from about 7:30am. This at least provided a ready audience for the morning program of folk singers performing a repertoire of anti-war songs, though they were maybe not the most enthusiastic crowd. Brisbane’s iconic tea pourer Ollie was also stopped and searched, police letting him go when they found his morning tea trolley did indeed only include china cups and jam drops.
As the convention drew to a close, the riot cops finally had something to do – protesters blocked the exits and police came to eventually clear them out. A couple of arrests and one more evening standing guard, and the cops could finally knock off, though extra security remained for the sizeable packdown operation over the next few days.
I spoke to one police officer at the end of Land Forces who confirmed my own analysis – “I think last year they got caught a bit by surprise by protests, so this year they were a lot more planned”. Part of the plan, presumably, was to get as many cops as possible from around the city and pay them overtime to stand around at the Convention Centre or sit in a car outside Jagera Hall. It also involved a team of trained negotiators. From what I have heard, the inside of the centre was heavily patrolled as well, and the fact that there were two distinct uniforms worn by the many security guards suggests a whole new security company was contracted to the Convention Centre just for Land Forces. What else did the security plan include? Surveillance of protesters? Presumably at least to a basic level. What does all that add up to? One insider source said there were 600 police at Land Forces!
I guess when it comes down to it one would say all those police successfully did their job. Protesters were unable to replicate the disruptions to the conference from last year or the media coverage that came with it. But at what cost? Of course we don’t know the specifics, but at a rough estimate I would say a lot. Will we ever know? Last year the local MP Amy McMahon asked in parliament how much the state government had spent on Land Forces. She was fobbed off by Labor, and is likely to be again this year.
How can the state government justify this expenditure? What deals could possibly transpire at Land Forces that would enable recouping this money? And what kind of deals? I’m not sure that our government bribing multinational companies by throwing money at their sales conference is the kind of business we want.
But also, a government is not a business meant to invest money in order to make more. What social good does Land Forces do for the people of Queensland? The hundreds of private companies at Land Forces provide very little immediate benefit for most Australians and a very negative social cost in many places around the world.
One of those costs, of course, is the policing of protest. Many of those weapons sold at Land Forces will go to governments who use them solely to repress their own people – a fact we were reminded of during Land Forces by the presence of West Papuans and Palestinians talking about their occupied homelands. The weapons industry entrenches injustice and corruption around the world by allowing governments to crush dissent. The bottomless purses of military expenditure means the system is always stacked against everyday people who try to challenge the status quo – no matter how worthy their aims are.
I couldn’t help but reflect on this as I stood at the Convention Centre surrounded by armed police watching my every move. While Land Forces promised to show those who went inside the cutting edge of weapons technology, those of us on the outside got front row seats to see what militarisation of society looks like in Queensland in 2022.
– Andy Paine