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The dangerous use of the military

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Friday, 25 September 2020

Ever since the Romans, standing armies have been viewed with deep suspicion. They are expensive to maintain, which often leads to onerous taxation, and they have an appalling record as instruments of oppression.

In Blackstone’s 1768 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Henry St. George Tucker wrote: “Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”

America’s founding fathers were of the same opinion. Having freed themselves of British military tyranny, they were in no hurry to suffer the same fate at the hands of their own government. Alexander Hamilton thought Congress should vote every two years “upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot”, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the Greeks and Romans were wise “to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army.” James Madison wrote: “Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”


In the twentieth century, with the growth in technology, a well-trained professional military became difficult to avoid. Some democracies, Switzerland being a well known example, created a small full-time professional core but retained its reliance on citizen militia. Most others at least limited the use of the military for anything other than national defence. Every dictatorship, by contrast, used its military to retain power.

Our Australian Defence Force, while not having the status of the military in Israel or America, nonetheless has widespread community support. It is also seen, at least till now, as professional and competent with no political agenda other than a creepy trend towards wokeness.

It was also assumed its role was similarly limited to national defence, despite occasionally getting involved in such things as delivering relief supplies, erecting field hospitals or evacuating those affected by natural disasters. This is reinforced by the constitution, which nominates the Governor-General as commander in chief, not the Prime Minister, Defence Minister or state premiers.

Things changed a lot this year. During the bushfires the ADF not only provided logistics support but also engaged with police in traffic control. And now, during the coronavirus pandemic, it is working alongside police to enforce border closures and quarantine and, in Victoria, a severe lockdown. A very important line has been crossed.

Sections 92 and 117 of the constitution guarantee free movement of people and trade between the states. Even if the High Court ultimately decides that the coronavirus risk is sufficient reason to make an exception, only Victoria’s borders may qualify. There is an excellent chance the ADF is helping to enforce border closures that are totally unconstitutional at enormous human and financial cost.  

As for Victoria’s lockdown, the implications here are worse by an order of magnitude. With the authority of a state of emergency, the Victorian police have been given extremely wide powers including entering premises without a warrant, enforcing rules on exercise, working from home, wearing a mask, home quarantine, distance from home and essential work. 


They have attacked people walking peacefully and socially distanced, questioned and threatened those who post on Facebook about going walking, broken down doors and arrested those who advocate protests about the loss of freedom, and selectively arrested those actually protesting. Moreover, they have done much of this with a degree of thuggish enthusiasm that would be familiar to any of the last century’s dictators.

By any measure this is intimidation intended to suppress dissent. And the only reason it is able to occur is because the ADF is providing assistance. The police in Victoria could never do all that without them.

The Morrison government, now wringing its hands in frustration at the Victorian lockdown and railing against the border closures, could make an immediate difference by returning the ADF to its national defence role. Indeed, given the worsening situation with China, that ought to be its only purpose. It would also send a well overdue signal that no disease is so serious that it can be used to justify the sacrifice of essential freedoms.

Things might have changed this year but they are not so different that we can afford to ignore the lessons of history. Standing armies remain a threat to liberty, just as they were in the time of the Romans. We should not tolerate the ADF diminishing our liberty.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is a former Senator for the Liberal Democrats.

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