The strange case of the weapons maker and the Australian children's charity

Paul Daley
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA</span>
Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Many are the ways a multinational arms manufacturer, whose products are responsible for the deaths of countless humans including children, may seek reputational enhancement.

Merchants of death may fund a range of cash-strapped tertiary institutions for Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, as happens in Australia now.

Or donate their relative spare change to the Australian War Memorial, thereby both profiting from battle and reputationally (well, that’s the dubious aim) by commemorating the dead. Unthinkable? No. It’s been happening for years.

Or they could sponsor a leading Australian charity for children. Improbably, this also happened when weapons manufacturer BAE Systems Australia this year “partnered” with the national, independent children’s charity The Smith Family for three years.

Related: The Australian War Memorial's expansion money would be better spent on traumatised veterans | Paul Daley

A company that profits corpulently from products that kill people seems to me an uncomfortable fit with such a reputable children’s charity. But, then again, money speaks many languages.

Loads of metaphors come to mind. Big tobacco funding cancer research. Booze companies going into the detox business ...

But back to the strange case of BAE, The Smith Family and the sponsorship “partnership” that seemed to disappear into the night once questions were asked.

On 6 August BAE Australia’s press release announced a $100,000 partnership with The Smith Family “to support schools to participate in the young ICT Explorer’s Program, Australia’s biggest student invention competition”.

On 30 August Sue Wareham, president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) wrote to The Smith Family’s chief executive, Lisa O’Brien. Wareham congratulated the charity on its excellent work, commending its aim to help schools in low socio-economic communities “take part in a Stem-related project competition”. But, she warned, partnering with BAE was “fraught with problems”.

Wareham wrote, “BAE ... remains, a key supplier of the Saudi-led coalition that has bombed Yemen into humanitarian catastrophe, depriving children there of virtually everything they need. MAPW regards The Smith Family’s good name and reputation as being threatened by association with a company whose products destroy families and communities.”

On 10 September, O’Brien responded that The Smith Family “is subject to a range of legislative requirements as well as sector codes of conduct” and the charity’s operations and practices – including fundraising – reflect this.

O’Brien wrote, “ ... we gave careful consideration to a range of factors in deciding to proceed with a partnership with the Australian operations of BAE Systems. Our partnership with BAE Systems Australia is significantly boosting our capacity to support disadvantaged students with digital skills building programs. It allows us to assist schools around the country in low SES communities, to participate in a Stem-related competition.”

On 29 September Wareham replied: “Our concern is the extreme harm to children that is caused by war and weaponry, which is hidden behind BAE System’s corporate image ... The Middle East is a key target for BAE sales, because there are many areas of violence and instability within the region. The world’s worst humanitarian crisis currently is in Yemen, where war has caused incalculable suffering for children.

“The role of BAE Systems in perpetuating this crisis is huge, the British government having subcontracted to BAE the supply of weapons (including its Typhoon fighter jets), maintenance and engineers to Saudi Arabia which leads the coalition that is bombing Yemen. The Guardian reported last year the comments of a former UK defence attache to Saudi Arabia and Yemen that ‘The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on BAE System ... They couldn’t do it without us.’”

Wareham emphasised BAE’s chequered (at best) corporate history and said “perhaps [the] most troubling of BAE’s activities, is its involvement with the manufacture of the worst weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons ... it is little wonder that BAE Systems seeks to sanitise its image by donating to organisations that help those whom BAE’s products harm, including children”.

“This raises the question of The Smith Family’s policy in relation to accepting donations. Are there sources of funding which would not be acceptable? For example, if a company or individual produced chemical or biological weapons, landmines, fossil fuels, tobacco or illicit drugs, would their funds be accepted? If they would not, it is puzzling that a company that is contributing to untold suffering for children, and makes the most destructive and inhumane of all weapons, is deemed an acceptable partner. MAPW believes that this puts The Smith Family’s reputation severely at risk.”

On 21 October O’Brien responded: “We ... regularly review and monitor our corporate partnerships over the term of that partnership to ensure continued alignment with our mission and values.”

She said The Smith Family was “considering and monitoring” matters Wareham raised “including certain historical matters that have been the subject of legal proceedings or investigation the US and UK. As requested, a copy of your letter has been brought to the attention of our board.

“At this time ... we remain comfortable to continue to accept the valuable financial support provided by BAE Systems Australia for the Young ICT Explorers Accelerator Program. We do not accept your assertion that our collaboration with BAE Systems Australia for the Young ICT Explorers Accelerator Program enables BAE Group to ‘sanitise’ its image globally. I would like to assure you that we will continue to monitor this matter and, if necessary, we will consider any additional information that comes to light.”

On 10 November Wareham wrote, “ ... we will now consider raising our concerns publicly ... in the spirit of respect for The Smith Family’s important work but concern at the unsatisfactory response to the matters we have raised.”

On Thursday I asked The Smith Family if there was anything further it wanted to add to O’Brien’s written explanations to Wareham about its partnership with BAE.

“The partnership with BAE Systems Australia concludes at the end of December 2020,” The Smith Family responded.

“Its funding helped support delivery of an important ICT skills development program enabling children from disadvantaged communities to gain vital digital skills. The program will continue and we are seeking new funding sources to ensure children can continue to access this valuable resource.”

The Smith Family and O’Brien ultimately made a prudent decision.

Meanwhile other charities, public interest and educational institutions should take cautionary interest here when BAE or the other merchants of death come knocking.

Because knock they will.