Australia's PM uses USA's military satellite plan to attack opposition

Prime Minister John Howard's government on Thursday used a U.S. plan to build a military communications facility on Australia's west coast to attack the opposition and its star recruit, former rock star Peter Garrett, questioning their commitment to the Australia-U.S. alliance.

The center-right government confirmed Thursday that an agreement was expected within several months for the United States to establish a joint military satellite communications facility in the city of Geraldton.

There already is a secretive joint Australia-U.S. intelligence and communications complex at Pine Gap in central Australia and a U.S. naval communications station at Exmouth in Western Australia state.

Garrett, the former activist lead singer of the rock band Midnight Oil who is now the center-left Labor Party's environment spokesman, repeatedly refused to answer media questions Thursday about whether he supported such a military facility on Australian soil. He has previously sung protest songs against the U.S. military presence in Australia.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer attacked Garrett's silence as proof that the former anti-nuclear campaigner was "always a supporter of the closure of American bases in Australia."

"These facilities ... are fundamental in underpinning ... the United States alliance, and the government ... is strongly committed to the alliance as the key guarantee to our nation's security," Downer told Parliament.

Defense Minister Brendan Nelson quoted from Garrett's memoirs in which he said he looked forward to an eviction of American bases by the Australian government.

"It's time that the Labor Party stood up for Australia and the Australia-U.S. alliance," Nelson told Parliament.

Nelson said Canberra and Washington had been negotiating for two years to build a number of ground-based communications systems around Australia.

The Geraldton facility would be the first under the new agreement and the only one with a military purpose, he said.

"I won't go into specific details, but it will support not only the operations of the United States military and its allies but also support Australian troops," Nelson said.

"We will be fully aware of the information that goes through that ground-based system," he added.

Labor defense spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the opposition supported existing and planned joint Australia-U.S. facilities and accused the government of "playing party politics with Australia's national security."

But Labor lawmaker Daryl Melham and Rachel Siewert, of the minor opposition Greens party, voiced concerns that the Geraldton facility could become a terrorist target, the AP says.

The 56-year-old bilateral defense alliance has been a major issue in Parliament this week, with Howard accused of undermining it by criticizing U.S. Democratic Party presidential hopeful Barack Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

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