Is a US Marine base in Darwin really a good idea?

US Marines in the Philippines practising knife skills with their local counterparts in 2010. Flickr/United States Marine Corps Official Page.

The Labor Government will reportedly allow the US to permanently base American Marines in Darwin.

If this goes ahead, Australia will join a long list of countries around the world that host American soldiers, including former US colonies such as the Philippines and Cuba, its vanquished WWII foes, Japan and Germany, and scores of other countries. What does it mean for Australia?

Expert reactions below, and your comments are welcome at the end.

Assistant Professor Robin Tennant-Wood, Faculty of Business and Government, University of Canberra

The establishment of a permanent US Marine base in Darwin could have catastrophic consequences for the Darwin community if their reputation in other Pacific rim bases is anything to go by.

There will, of course, be a lot of talk about boosting the Northern Territory economy and strengthening the Australia-US alliance. Darwin, however, is a small city with a population of less than 130,000, of whom around 10 per cent are Indigenous Australians. A hefty Australian military presence in the city accounts for a further 8 per cent of the population. It has the youngest median age of any Australian city and the highest population turnover of any major city: the 2006 census recorded that 46 per cent of the population had changed in the five years since the previous census.

Due partly to its demographic composition and partly to its isolation, Darwin faces a wall of social problems that the Territory government already struggles to address. A US Marine base with a rotating population is unlikely to help.

It is unknown at this stage what numbers the proposed US base would be bringing in, but their bases in other regional centres are significant: 35,000 military personnel plus 5000 civilian support in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan and 29,000 in six bases in South Korea.

In Okinawa alone, in the period 1952-2004, over 200,000 incidents or accidents including the deaths of almost 11,00 Japanese civilians were directly attributable to the US forces. That’s just over 21 civilian locals killed each year. About 90 per cent of these incidents were traffic related. In Japan, like Australia, traffic drives on the left hand side of the road. Perhaps more alarmingly, criminal offences perpetrated by US service or support personnel in Okinawa account for around one-third of all crime in the prefecture with a total population of 1.3 million.

Darwin already has the highest crime rate of any Australian city; the highest imprisonment rate in Australia (and one of the highest in the world); and the highest Australian rate of homelessness. In 2007 the Australian Institute of Criminology found that almost 75 per cent of people “arrested or detained by police in Darwin were under the influence of illicit drugs.” Similarly, rates of use and abuse of alcohol are higher in Darwin than in any other Australian city. In May this year it was reported that a spike in the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases and hepatitis had been recorded.

Add a US Marine base to the mix and it likely that many of these social problems will worsen rather than improve. As US military personnel pay taxes to the US government the expected boost to the economy is unlikely to increase the capacity of the NT government to increase health services, crisis accommodation for the homeless, crime prevention programs and drug and alcohol programs. It is unlikely to assist in lifting school retention rates for Indigenous kids or create more apprenticeships or places in tertiary education.

If the Howard-G.W.Bush alliance made Australians slightly squeamish, the Gillard-Obama one may also be cause for concern.

Guantanamo Bay. A US Marine Major General, Michael R. Lehnert, commanded the task force that in 2002 built and initially ran the prison at the US’s naval base in Cuba. AAP/EPA/Shawn Thew