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Published in Canberra Times 23 December 2011

Defence of what exactly?

Over the past fifteen years there has been a trend toward lessened accountability on the part of federal government departments and agencies. Left to their own devices government departments will naturally seek to avoid scrutiny by their political masters, the press and the public. And they have increasingly been left to their own devices.

In order to achieve this they have had to embrace the broad terms of the government’s agenda. This has not been difficult. Refugees, terrorism, defence, trade, tourism, water and infrastructure reform, education and believe it or not, despite the histrionics from Abbott, climate change, the mining tax and the carbon tax. Were Abbott to go it would stay, it will probably stay anyway.

There are no significant differences between the major parties, a few concocted issues like the poker machine tax, but nothing at the core, nothing of substance. The right for ascendancy in Australian politics is being fought, as Abbott well understands, on the basis of personalities. A game that Howard excelled at, seeing off Crean, Beazley and Latham.

To the long term and cynical public servant, these personality competitions are largely irrelevant within the context of the current political climate. The prevailing political consensus ensures a broad framework within which to conduct government business. The effect of this is that there is limited political oversight of the AFP and ASIO. No one questions or indeed is in a position to question the competence and judgements of the Director General of ASIO. The Department of Immigration can run what amount to concentration camps without proper scrutiny. Both major parties agree with the unconscionable cruelty associated with mandatory detention. Fear of being swamped by boats prevails. As Leunig picked years ago, we are a nation of control freaks.

However it is the Department of Defence that deserves our closest scrutiny. Compared to other departments it has a huge budget, a culture, amongst uniformed employees, which is different to that prevailing in the general community and one which is fostered by them. The intent is to create a mystique that frustrates attempts at accountability by the uninitiated. Of course in the face of tough minded common sense it falls apart, but little of that exists in the parliament. Within Defence there has developed a strong sense of entitlement amongst senior officers, the structure, including the lower ranks are there to support and enhance their ambition. With the growth in the notion of entitlement has come a corresponding collapse in moral fibre.

The notion of serving for the national good has slipped down the rung of motivating factors, not necessarily for the rankers but certainly for many of the cynical and senior commanders. How else can the poor state of naval preparedness be explained? How else the ad hoc air force acquisitions? And how else can our continued presence in Afghanistan be explained?

A majority of Australians have seen through the involvement, it is not in Australia’s national interest. Yet senior defence officers continue to argue for it. Why? Many see it as a useful training ground for Australian forces. Exercises also take a toll in killed and wounded. During Barra Winga, the first of the major exercises preparing Australian troops for Vietnam, five soldiers were killed over a three month period.

The rotation through Afghanistan provides promotion opportunities, combat experience of a superior nature than any exercise could create. The diggers get extra pay and allowances, helping many to get a start in life or assisting with the financial needs of expanding families. Combat and service awards enhance service and civilian status.

Australia is a democracy but the Department of Defence has slipped out of our grasp, it has removed itself from the mainstream, it is separate from the rest of us. It wants the war in Afghanistan but it has got it at huge cost to what used to be the special relationship between the armed forces and the civilian population. We used to laud our heroes, however in the name of the war on terror, but in reality as part of reinforcing a separate mystique and culture, it will not name recipients of bravery awards for reasons, it says, of security.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) recently conducted an inquiry, using FOI laws, to determine how the ADF treat prisoners in Afghanistan. It believes that the Australian public has been deliberately kept in the dark. Here are some of the things the Chief Executive of PIAC, Edward Santow, had to say. “The documents disclose poor leadership and raise serious questions that Defence has failed to answer…The Australian public has a right to know what is done in our name…”

Why is Defence misleading Smith, Gillard and Abbott on the nature of our involvement in Afghanistan? Why do they believe what Defence is telling them? It has taken the Australian public some time to get there, having to wade through the dross of the Murdoch press, but they are there, so why not our political elite?

The Department of Defence has become a key political player in the political vacuum created by the absence of different and varying policy and debate on issues rather than personalities. Defence push the alliance with the United States and now we have a US base in Darwin with no debate on the security, diplomatic and social issues associated with that decision.

The Defence establishment takes us for fools. They treat us like they treat their poor troops – with disdain. They need to be pulled into line, they need to be pulled back into the mainstream of Australian society; they have become less than honest, less than decent. A spate of incomplete and unsatisfactory inquiries from Kovco, and ADFA to unauthorised deaths in Afghanistan, ensures that the credibility of the Department of Defence has worn as thin as the second rate uniforms they provide.

They give the impression that they represent the values of main stream Australia. They don’t. Why did they refuse to provide the number of Afghan vets undergoing treatment in Australia? Why are reasonable requests for information refused on the basis of operational requirements? Why can’t Australian journalists critically report the war on Afghanistan from within the protection of the ADF? What is there to hide?

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator; members of his family served in the army from 1898 to 1968.