DEFENCE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Can Stephen Smith regain defence forces' trust?
, June 11, 2011
The belated announcement of the replacement of the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston — and also the replacements of the chiefs of the navy, air force and army — is the first step in restoring relations with the defence forces.
Appointments are normally made by the Commonwealth Government on the recommendation of senior defence staff, both military and civilian, but the poisonous relationship between the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, and senior defence force staff has disrupted the process.
Mr Smith was appointed Defence Minister after the last election, when Kevin Rudd took over Mr Smith’s former role as Foreign Minister.
Since then, the Defence Force has been embarrassed by a number of scandals, including the treatment of women on HMAS Success, allegations of physical and mental abuse of defence force recruits, drug-trafficking allegations in Sydney, and sexual misconduct by some recruits at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
Mr Smith has interpreted these as evidence of a pervasive culture in the defence forces which he is determined to change. At the same time, he has pushed forward efforts to open all combat roles in the defence forces to women, a move opposed by many serving officers.
Instead of dealing with the problems of the defence force internally, Mr Smith has decided that he will campaign publicly to change the culture of the defence forces, and has commenced a number of high-profile initiatives to bring about this change.
After allegations of crew misconduct during an overseas tour of duty by HMAS Success in 2009, Air Chief Marshal Houston ordered an independent inquiry by Mr Roger Gyles QC, a former federal court judge.
Mr Gyles’ report was delivered to the government last year, and recommended disciplinary action against some naval personnel and measures to change the culture of the navy. Both the government and the navy accepted the recommendations, and Air Chief Marshal Houston said they would be fully implemented.
However, a subsequent Senate inquiry into the affair found that the navy’s response to the Gyles inquiry was woefully inadequate. “Indeed, it was simply a repackaging of so-called initiatives which have failed miserably in the past. This type of window-dressing will simply not work.”
The Senate report also found that the navy had bungled its treatment of the sailors against whom allegations had been made.
It said: “The committee found that the senior sailors were denied natural justice by not being given information about the allegations against them in a timely way. Their landing from the ship and transfer arrangements to HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney showed a disregard for their mental well-being, legal situation and professional standing in the navy.”
In an unrelated matter, federal police are investigating allegations that as many as 50 sailors based in Sydney have been involved in illegal importation and the sale and use of prohibited drugs. According to some, the practice had been going on for years.
The chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral Russ Crane told the media, “What I can reinforce is that we have very strong policies in place to deal with people who might decide they wish to experiment or people who wish to use illegal drugs. And when we find them, we will deal with them.”
Once again, it is clear that the navy’s “very strong policies” on drugs are not working.
And, more recently, the reputation of the Australian Defence Force Academy has been damaged by a scandal involving sexual misconduct of some of its recruits, and the ADFA’s handling of these allegations which the media alleged had targeted the victim.
Instead of backing his defence force leadership and insisting that they implement reforms, the Defence Minister Smith has engaged in a public campaign that the defence force culture must change.
He appointed the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), to lead an examination of the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and review pathways for women into Australian Defence Force (ADF) leadership.
“This will be an important step in commencing a far-reaching cultural appraisal and ongoing change program for Defence,” Mr Smith said.
He also directed the defence chiefs to open up of all roles in the ADF to women, including combat roles, a move which will exacerbate the problems which have recently appeared.
Mr Smith also ordered the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force to conduct a review of the management of incidents and complaints in the defence forces, a separate legal inquiry into the management of ADFA incident and its aftermath, further legal inquiries into other allegations of misconduct in the defence force, and a joint study by the defence chiefs, ADFA and Australian vice-chancellors into student cultures and conduct.
All this is occurring in the context of delays in the announcement of a replacement for the Chief of the Defence Force, and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, who are due to retire in less than a month’s time. Their replacements were announced on June 1.
This has followed months of inexplicable delay surrounding the replacement of the Chief of Joint Operations, a post which oversees the Australian overseas deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and elsewhere.
There was a deep sense of foreboding in the defence forces that the minister, who is clearly unhappy about the behaviour of many defence personnel, might be planning to appoint his own nominees to top defence force posts.
While Mr Smith denies it, the delayed appointments and lack of transparency in the process have undermined public confidence in the defence forces and in the minister himself.
In light of the other problems facing the Gillard Government, this is the last thing Australia needs at this time.