Swan Island military base

Melways map of Swan Island

Melways map of Swan Island

Swan Island is a 1.4 square-kilometre sand island near Queenscliff in Victoria. It is so close to Queenscliff, in fact, that there is a bridge from the mainland to the island, via the smaller Rabbit Island.  Swan Island offers breeding grounds for Black Swans and other water birds, and a winter home for the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot.

It is also home to a golf course and a yacht club, but access to the island is restricted on account of the secret military base occupying 175 hectares of the central and north-eastern part of Swan Island.  Access to the narrow vehicular bridge is restricted by “electronic boom gate, guard room, iron fences, barbed wire and security cameras.”  Suggests the Herald Sun:

“Go for a toddle in your boat and get into that restricted area and see what happens. There’ll be a green boat there very soon.  It’s beyond top secret.”

The base or ‘training area’ is a “sort of intelligence resort with conference facilities.”  According to Age journalist Brendan Nicholson, “less is known about what goes on at Swan Island than is known about Pine Gap” (a US military base near Alice Springs).  Explains the Department of Defence:

“Commonwealth activities at Swan island are very sensitive in nature and directly related to national security. The need to protect these national security interests is imperative.” (2008)

Swan Island has a long history of military use, originally with a view to protecting the entrance to Port Phillip Bay from a feared Russian invasion during the Crimean War in the 1870s.  During World War I it was used as a depot for naval mines and for Army Reserve training since World War II.

In the late 1950s, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) acquired the property from the Navy. In their 1989 study of ASIS, Toohey & Pinwill describe the Swan Island facility as an “ultra-secret clandestine warfare centre“.  According to the US-based Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, the Swan Island base is used:

“primarily for the training of ASIS agents, and also is the location of a substantial ASIS communications facility and a special operations storage site. In addition to its ASIS role, the Swan Island Training Area is also used by ADF special forces, especially from the Special Air Service Regiment, under the rubric of the Swan Island Army detachment (SIAD) … The Swan Island facilities have been greatly expanded in recent years.”

The military satellite shut down by peace activists in March 2010

The military satellite shut down by peace activists in March 2010

Its uses are thought to include:

“various Army Reserve and commando camps and bivouacs are held there. Intended to be used primarily as a training facility for [ASIS's] own covert action purposes, from time to time ASIS lends Swan Island to ASIO for special training courses when physical isolation is necessary for security reasons. Members of the former Narcotics Bureau and their successors in the Australian Federal Police are given training in aspects of clandestine work, and anti-terrorist exercises are held with troops from the SAS. Seminars on intelligence are conducted on the island  for officials from departments such as Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s, where the more gung-ho among the Canberra bureaucrats are given a taste of frontline service by being allowed to fire machine guns. It is also a useful clandestine training area for some of ASIS/ more sensitively placed agents from abroad, and at least one secret course has been carried out for Malaysian government spooks. It serves as a storage depot for ‘special stores’ … Finally, Swan Island serves as a communications centre with its own transmitters and receivers.” (Toohey & Pinwill, 1989 pp64-65)

According to the Herald Sun, “other government agencies, such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments, also use the island’s ageing single-storey buildings for training seminars and briefings.”  Secret agents “returning from abroad are debriefed on the island,” according to The Age.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, “the island has become very busy,” reports the Herald Sun.  “At any time, there are 5 to 10 senior SAS specialists on the base.”   It is also “where special training is given to police counter-terrorism squads and those likely to face armed bikie gangs.”

Soldiers and spies posted to the base “usually go into nearby Queenscliff to relax, as the tiny Swan Island bar has limited supplies and very few customers.”

View across Queenscliff Harbour to Sand Island and Swan Island

View across Queenscliff Harbour to Sand Island and Swan Island

Swan Island ‘incursion’ 2010

On 31 March 2010, four Australian peace activists known as the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective swam across the fast-moving strip of water separating Queenscliff from Swan Island (pictured left) and entered the unlocked Swan Island Training Area.  They remained in the facility for several hours before they were discovered and arrested.  They closed down several pieces of electrical equipment, including a 7-metre satellite dish marked “emergency satellite shutdown” (pictured above).

Nonviolent blockade of the bridge to Swan Island, June 2010

Nonviolent blockade of the bridge to Swan Island, June 2010

In June 2010 all charges against the Bonhoeffer Four were dismissed by a Geelong magistrate.  That same day, a further 9 activists were arrested blockading the bridge to the island (pictured right).