Published Canberra Times 13th April 2011
Stephen Smith has made the first moves to reverse a culture of impunity in the defence force given licence under John Howard after the Australian intervention in East Timor. Howard glorified the military, with a mixture of jingoistic rhetoric and public policy putting them beyond the scrutiny and accountability normally expected of public servants. He did the same with the Federal Police after 9/11.
Howard encouraged the ADF to think of themselves as elite; Rudd and Gillard did nothing to reverse that.
A window was opened last week into the thinking of military officers in terms of their reaction, or lack of it, to the unacceptable abuse of a female student at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Once the story broke Defence went into spin control. Senior officers, including the head of the defence force, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, sought to play the matter down, when what he should have done was to immediately front the media, condemn the appalling behaviour of the male cadets and called for their dismissal from the military. The issue was not complex and could have been handled with the disciplinary tools available to the military and the Commandant of the Academy, Commodore Bruce Kafer.
Instead Defence decided to call in the AFP, to ascertain whether any laws had been broken before moving against the cadets. They made future action against the offenders, concomitant upon transgression of the law. The AFP was once again used as a political instrument of government. The expectation appeared to be that the AFP would find that laws had not been broken, which is exactly what happened until the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, and public opinion expressed substantial outrage. At that point the AFP had a rethink but it does not matter, the military always had the power to act.
The procedure used to be and still should be that the military took whatever action was deemed appropriate in order to preserve good order and discipline and then the civilian legal code kicks in, if the issue is not one of serious crime, such as rape, murder or substantial fraud.
Houston is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald of April 9-10 as saying, “If you draw comparisons against similar institutions – I am talking about university campuses – I think the number of incidents of this kind is less at ADFA than at any other campus in the country.” The allegation is unsupported hearsay. Neil James, Director of the Australian Defence Association, made the same point last week. I would not have thought the head of the defence department would not have been silly enough to say it. It is a weak excuse. If this is happening on campuses then Wardens and Rectors have something to answer for and if other students know of these things happening they should report them. Houston is head of defence and as such he has a paid duty and responsibility to deal with problems of abuse, bullying, failure of character and lack of leadership. He claims to be shocked, he should have acted acted accordingly.
A show down between the Minister and his department, particularly the uniformed members of his department, has been looming for some time, almost coming to a head over the lies he was fed concerning lack of sea worthiness of the Manoora, Kanimbla and Tobruk. This issue represented a complete breakdown in communication and trust between the Minister and his department. It also indicates appalling management practices on the part of the Navy. It has resulted in the hasty purchase of the second hand British amphibious landing ship, RFA Largs Bay.
At the time of the public disclosures,for the sake of morale and public perception Smith backed the chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane, he should not have done so. A uniform does not put a public servant beyond scrutiny and accountability.
The slackness, bloated self importance and other world secretiveness of uniformed defence personnel came to a head for Smith and the political process over the inability of senior officers to understand and respond to basic issues of morality, ethics and bullying. The bringing of unrelated military charges against the female victim on the day her abuse became public was a humiliating act of bullying – the system seeking revenge for the act of public exposure; an attempt to besmirch and bring into question the character of the victim.
Smith took a stand. The issues are important. He has announced an inquiry into the role of women in the Defence Force and the Commandant of ADFA has been stood down. In announcing this Houston showed that he still does not get it. He was quoted as saying it has been a stressful time for Commandant Kafer. “He has been subject to abusive and offensive phone calls. The environment is such that it is best if he goes on leave.” What rubbish, Kafer is not the victim, he is an officer who failed to perform his duty, who failed to show the requisite leadership. Houston has demonstrated, once again, that he is part of the problem. His mindset is wrong, he should go and the upshot of all of the processes that Smith has put in place is that he probably will. Having him as chief of defence will increasingly be seen as untenable.
The defence force is answerable to the people through the democratic process of parliament. The people pay the defence bills. The people supply the volunteers for the defence force. The people want to support their troops, the defence department needs this support, but it is being denied through secrecy, particularly with respect to Australian involvement in Afghanistan. We need to know of the trials and tribulations of the troops and of their resilience and bravery, even if some of us do not agree with the strategy of fighting in Afghanistan as a means of combating terrorism. The roots of terror are a little more complex than that.
Neil James questioned the Ministers right to withhold expressions of confidence in Commodore Kafer. As noted above the Minister has every right, but what James indicated was a disturbing view that the military are beyond political control.
James has a brief to represent the views of serving uniformed military personnel, if this is a widely held view it needs to be addressed.
Australia is a democracy with an elected government sitting in parliament; the military are subject to the laws and will of that parliament. Members of the military would do well to remember that they are public servants, that they are not apart from the democratic process, many may be exceptional people but they are not exempt from the conventions and practices which govern the rest of society, illustrated positively and at its best by the magnificent contribution of the ADF during the Queensland floods.
Smith’s review does not go far enough, but it is a start. He must stick with it. He is to be congratulated for finding the moral courage to act. He has shamed many of the senior officers around him, who rely on braid and medals to stand-over and awe and at times bully, but he has shown them that there is a difference between moral and physical courage – and most need a good dose of the former.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, who has served in the ADF and whose family has contributed to the defence of Australia for many of the past 97 years.