Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:35 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:35 | SYDNEY

Des Ball: An Australian original


Graeme Dobell

17 December 2012 14:10

The career of Des Ball traces Australia's core strategic obsessions: the global balance, the US alliance and US bases in Oz, defence of the continent, and the creation of an Asian security community.

As a public intellectual, Ball has had a big impact on the understanding and then acceptance of US bases on Australian soil and the way Australia thinks about defending that soil by itself. Equally, he has been a major second-track player in Australia's contributions to the laborious but vital efforts at military and security confidence-building in Asia. 

To gauge Ball's standing, consider these tributes from two of Australia's longest serving foreign ministers.

From the Liberal side, Alexander Downer says 'Des Ball has been an academic gem. He has challenged, revealed, reviled and argued his way through the foreign policy and security debates of the modern era.' From Labor, Gareth Evans praises Ball for 'an intellectual life magnificently well-led well-lived.'

Neither side of politics could claim him. As Gareth Evans posed the question: Is Des Ball a dove with hawkish characteristics or a hawk with dovish characteristics? The answer offered by Ball — showered with praise during a 'Desfest' at the Australian National University last week – is that he is a realist, as deeply committed to liberal institutionalism as the inductive approach.

In the sort of homage usually paid to the horizontal man, friends and colleagues gathered to honour the still vertical and vocal man and mark the 25th anniversary of Ball's Special Professorship at the ANU.

The book of 18 essays published in Ball's honour calls him an 'Insurgent Intellectual'. It is an inspired depiction of the Ball method, both painstaking and unconfined, and it is a mark of  Ball's regional standing that the book is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

One element in the Ball insurgent style is his use of journalist techniques, linked to the most rigorous and painstaking academic discipline. Like any good hack, he knows the face-to-face interview will give you nuggets that the documents never give up. You don't understand the story until you have walked the ground, talked to and counted the troops, identified units and weapons, photographed and recorded everything, and worked out exactly the type and significance of the signals antennae. And better than most hacks, Ball always seems to get his hands on the documentary evidence.

Des is a hoarder not a burner of secret papers. Some journalists always burn the leaked paperwork before they publish for fear of the raid or writ, but most can't bear to destroy the evidence. The Ball approach was to hide stuff in ever more ingenious places; he buried various versions of Australia's top secret strategic guidance in plastic esky containers in his backyard. I was once talking to Des about something he'd written and he rather mournfully admitted that he'd forgotten where he hid the relevant document and had despaired of finding it again. 

All those skills were on display in the extraordinary intellectual marathon which is the Ball investigation and unveiling of the role of US intelligence bases in Australia, especially Pine Gap. Richard Tanter tracks that academic detective story in this essay, judging:

Desmond Ball's labours through four decades to elucidate the character of United States defence and intelligence facilities in Australia, to document the evidence, test the balance of benefits and dangers to both national security and human security, and then tell the story to his fellow Australians is unparalleled in Australian intellectual and political life.

The knowledge Ball put into the public realm made it possible for the Australian Labor Party to embrace the US bases and re-commit to the alliance. Australia was able to move to a position of 'full knowledge and consent' on the bases, and Des Ball takes much of the credit for killing off a culture of secrecy which had seen the bases as taboo, dark places subject to limited Australian knowledge and even less consent. 

Kim Beazley describes Ball's work as 'a critical part of the foundation of core elements of Australian national security policy.' The former Labor leader and Defence Minister says Ball helped to transform the significance of the bases for US-Australia relations.

The range of the Ball intellect is demonstrated by his ability to shift from the most intricate and complex world of nuclear targeting (earning the respect of 'every high church in the nuclear priesthood', as Brad Glosserman and Ralph Cossa write) to the slow and subjective effort to create an Asia Pacific security culture, particularly in his role in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

The members of Canberra's substantial Mon community present at the ANU celebrations marked another area of deep and long commitment, Ball's work along the Thai-Burma border (he has made a total of 83 research trips to the area). Here are two Ball facets: one a focus on the signals and intelligence of the Burmese Army, the other what it all this means for people. Ball describes the two strands this way:

One is that through the process of monitoring communications I got a very real understanding of the extent of human rights abuses that were being committed by Burmese army units against villages. The other is a personal commitment to some of those ethnic groups. If I am really such an expert in strategic and defence matters, as I am sometimes portrayed, then I think that I have an obligation to apply some of that expertise to assisting some of those ethnic armed groups. So where I think I have expertise that can help them I believe that I have an obligation to apply it.

Des Ball is an Australian original, able to construct a roll-your-own cigarette with the aplomb of an old bushie before turning his mind to subjects both arcane and awesome. He is a true Australian in both his passion for his country, his Australian persona, and his intellectual devotion to telling Australians the truth.