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Published The Drum 11th April 2011

It started before John Howard became Prime Minister, but he pushed the pace, particularly 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 and gave the ADF the licence to think of themselves as an elite, which for the Navy was some compensation for the abuse he subjected them to in defending his asylum seeker border policy, with the resultant lowering of morale still being felt.

Defence spending increased and was not subject to the scrutiny that it should have received, despite the best efforts of Senator Faulkner in opposition.

A window was opened last week into the mindset of some military senior 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.

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 act accordingly.

A show down between the Minister and his department, particularly the uniformed members of his department, had 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.

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. He needs his inadequate Prime Minister to back him. The issues are important. 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.

Smith was right, and has the right, not to express confidence in Commodore Kafer. If Howard could express confidence in General Cosgrove over his leadership of the East Timor Task Force, then it is equally open to Smith to reserve expressions of confidence. If it were me I would have expressed my lack of confidence in Houston some time ago and I would certainly not be expressing confidence in Kafer. But to be fair to him, there are probably others at the Academy with senior appointments who concurred with the decisions taken and who may have contributed to them and there may be others who strongly disagreed; all of which points to the need for an independent enquiry into the running of the Academy and maybe other aspects of Defence, including the Navy.

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.

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.