‘Review note: Kieran Finnane’s Peace Crimes’, Honest History, 26 November 2020
Richard Broinowski concluded his recent review of Project Rainfall, a history of Pine Gap, by noting that ‘in the Australian parliament, Pine Gap has become a non-issue, rarely mentioned except to evoke a spirit of bipartisan agreement’. The base may have become a non-issue for parliamentarians, but over the past 50 years a number of scholars, practitioners and activists have continued to investigate and report on the work of the facility. Notably, the Nautilus Institute, established in 1992, has published a series of reports analysing the expansion of Pine Gap, the development of the technology, and its utilisation.
Kieran Finnane, a journalist and writer who established the Alice Springs News in 1994, has written a very different history of Pine Gap (Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent), UQP, 2020). In the author’s own words:
I was drawn to write about the Peace Pilgrims because of the large view they take of their social responsibilities. They may join campaigns, but really, their field of action is the whole of life, as far as their capacities and nonviolence can take them. They are connected to movements, and even specific groups within them, but within the bounds of their strong spiritual and moral frameworks they seem remarkably free – unconstrained by waiting for consensus, or theoretical coherence, or numeric strength, or likely success.
The Peace Pilgrims are members or supporters of the Catholic Worker Movement, founded in America in the 1930s by the peace activist Dorothy Day. They were determined to highlight the role of Pine Gap, a secret facility located in the Northern Territory, in international conflict and high-tech war.
While Pine Gap is a ‘secret facility’, it is not remote, being located 19 km west of Alice Springs, with many of the facility’s employees being Americans and Australians who live in Alice Springs. Given its secrecy, many Australians are surprised by the proximity of the base to a significant population centre.
The website of the University of Queensland Press (the book’s publisher) features a video of Kieran Finnane speaking in a bush location about her motivation in writing the book. Significantly, those viewing the video can see in the distance the huge radomes of the Pine Gap base that house the antennas which collect electronic signals downlinked from satellites.
Along with other activists, the Pilgrims had been drawn to Alice Springs to join in protests marking the 50th anniversary of the US-Australian agreement that established the Pine Gap facility. In recent years, a number of activist groups had sought to draw attention to the base and its work by staging events, and in some cases penetrating the base’s operations area. So it was that in September 2016 the Pilgrims sought to peacefully invade the base. After walking through the night, they stepped through the outer fence of Pine Gap, praying as they went and singing and playing laments for the war dead before they were arrested. In this instance the ‘invaders’ were arrested and charged under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, and stood trial in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.
Kieran Finnane is an Alice Springs resident and Peace Crimes is her story of the protracted trial for the Pine Gap trespass. It includes profiles of the Pilgrims, their actions, their arrest and arraignment, and it is a compelling, beautifully written story. Among other things, it describes the tension arising from the determination of the Commonwealth’s prosecution team to achieve guilty verdicts and custodial sentences. Many readers, including politically committed Catholics, may be challenged by the activities and life choices of the Peace Pilgrims, but the Pilgrims were demonstrating a whole-of-life commitment. Reading about their commitment and their criminal trial makes Peace Crimes a thoroughly worthwhile experience.
See also: Kieran Finnane writes in Pearls and Irritations about some peace activists’ encounter with the SAS in Port Phillip Bay in 2014. For more on Pine Gap use the Honest History Search engine.
* John Myrtle was principal librarian at the Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra. He has produced Online Gems for Honest History, drawing upon his extensive database of references, and has written a number of book reviews for us (use our Search engine), a study of industrial action in the Sydney media industry in 1966-67, an article on Edward St John QC, and the history of the Arthur Norman Smith lectures in journalism.
 Tom Gilling. Project Rainfall: the Secret History of Pine Gap, Allen & Unwin, 2019
 Peace Crimes, 247-8
 Domes transparent to radio waves
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