Command failings that are defence-less
By Kay Danes*
The Australian Army’s top special forces fighting unit has come under intense scrutiny following the release of a confidential report commissioned in 2016 by one of its most senior officers.
The report has raised serious allegations of misconduct and a lack of accountability.
The allegations have sparked outrage from the general Australian armed services community on social media, slamming the intense media commentary as a witch-hunt.
Amidst the carnage of criticism, in a recent interview on Sky News’ ‘Outsiders’ program, former Australian Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Riccardo Bosi imparted a message that served to remind critics that any failings in respect to allegations of misconduct or a lack of accountability should be put squarely back on the shoulders of Defence’s leadership.1 It is after all, the Command who are responsible for the creation of the culture that exists in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and in the Army’s “elite” special forces units.
While the criticism so far has been largely focused on special forces, the upcoming closer scrutiny may reveal misconduct and accountability issues are not confined to that one small section, but are generic.
The Command structure of the ADF comprises the Chief of the Defence Force and the Army, Navy and Air Force Service Chiefs of Staff. This decision-making body is solely responsible for the orders that Australia’s armed forces must strictly adhere to. 2
Intense scrutiny in nation’s interests
No-one should object to intense scrutiny. It’s part of an important democratic process, and aligns with Australia’s international legal obligations that bind government, armed forces and agencies to international laws and human rights systems.3 Neither should anyone object to intense scrutiny of the Australian Army’s special units, as scrutiny ensures the legacy of the highest standards of professionalism and reputation prevail and honour the service of past, present and fallen members of those units.
On occasions mistakes will be made, and lessons must be learned: it is in the best interests of the Australian people that Army’s special forces units are subject to intense scrutiny. If there is found to be failing in leadership, however, then surely it is for the Command to take responsibility, and to ensure that corrective action ripples throughout the ADF.
Defence policy and Commonwealth laws are written to ensure the actions of Australia’s armed service personnel remain appropriate in both war and peace.
Importantly, not a single fighting unit functions in isolation of the ADF policy and standards. It is the Command who set and enforce the standards our armed services operate to, and under which armed service personnel must operate. That most famous narrative ‘the standard you walk by is the standard you accept’ was delivered in response to an earlier review of unacceptable behaviour in Australia’s Army.
After similar levels of intense scrutiny then, the Command was forced to acknowledge the prevalence of a culture of non-compliance with Defence policy within the ADF. The then Commander urged armed service personnel to show moral courage and to stand against the exploitation and degradation of others.4 Though the majority of armed service personnel would have been inspired to rise to that challenge, judging by recent reports there still appears to be a question concerning serious breaches of Defence policy and human rights in the armed services.
This speaks to the question of accountability. Some hold the opinion that natural justice is simply unattainable while Defence organisations are able to directly influence reviews into their own internal practices. While recent media reports may have shone a spotlight on the alleged cover-up culture in Army’s special forces, cover-ups there may just be the tip of the iceberg across the entire ADF. 5
Some social media commentators believe that far too much time and taxpayer resources have been used to cover-up unacceptable behaviour practices which could otherwise be mitigated by the adherence to Defence policies and Commonwealth laws. A cursory inquiry into publicly available reports reveal that hundreds of new complaints of unacceptable behaviour are submitted each year to the Command from its members.
Though Army claims it is committed to providing a safe, healthy and positive working experience for all, the reports reveal that Army has the highest numbers of complaints of unacceptable behaviour. 6 It also has a disproportionate amount of suicides among current and ex-serving personnel, as compared to the other armed services. 7
Most complaints from members are either finalised at a unit level, not granted, withdrawn or resolved but reports fail to disclose how these outcomes have been decided, or how often in favour of the complainant. In fact, there appears to be many who are dissatisfied with the way Defence, the Defence Ombudsman and Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force have handled complaints.
Observers suggest that – even when serious breaches have been shown to ignore Defence policy and break Commonwealth law – none of those bodies have been able to produce ongoing corrective action.
Many current and former members express their frustration on social platforms over the infinite resources Defence legal services has at its disposal to counter complaints. They complain that the supposed procedural fairness within Defence is rarely afforded to complainants because there is a growing trend for individuals in leadership roles to believe that they have authority to interpret Defence policies outside the bounds of the policy’s actual intent. It’s not surprising if leadership breaking down is fuelling a culture of non-compliance with Defence policy.
It’s hard to know how deeply these allegations penetrate the organisation, and how true they are, when high levels of secrecy shroud military organisations like the ADF. Secrecy has its proper place, especially in matters of national security, but it is poisonous to a fair go in an administrative environment where individuals claim secrecy as a tool to avoid scrutiny or accountability and/or to malign the professional reputations and careers of others.
Transparency, a necessary part of any civilised, democratic society, means shedding light on administrative actions and interpretations to ensure people are held to account, both bosses and employees. Transparency is the surest way to guard against corrupt practices and increase trust in the people and organisations, like the ADF, on which Australia’s future depends.
Everyone in the ADF, whether a Chief in a position of power or a member of the Australian Army’s special forces, are all legally and equally obliged to comply with the Defence Force Discipline Act 1982 (DFDA) as part of Commonwealth law. Everyone is subject to similar litigation procedures and penalties similar to those affecting civilians in an administrative sense.
Problems reach to the top
There has been three inquiries in just three years into problems: Crompvoets, Brereton and now Irvine. Dr Samantha Crompvoets, in the first of them, found a “complete lack of accountability” right to the top of the ADF in relation to the behaviour of special forces. Brereton is apparently proceeding down the same track, and the newly-announced Irvine inquiry will undoubtedly uncover more problems, not fewer, whether or not they become public under a policy of open transparency.
But the ADF’s problems extend beyond the special forces, and call for a fully-resourced, national inquiry with the power to compel witnesses to appear, at least an independent Senate inquiry if not a Royal Commission. There are at least six reasons:
- a growing number of reports generated from within special forces concerning misbehaviour, or worse,
- allegations of misconduct and a lack of accountability, including at both junior and senior officer level, throughout the ADF,
- non-adherence to the rule of military law, and to the disciplinary procedures, within the ADF,
- increasing health and mental health problems,
- mistreatment of veterans, and
- a disproportionate number of suicides of current and former serving personnel.
ADF boosters consistently point out the acts of physical bravery of personnel, but it is now time for people at all levels of the ADF to show at least an equal measure of moral courage: those who know where the system is failing should speak up, loudly and clearly.
The Australian Defence Force serves the Australian people. Australians are entitled to reassurance that trust and accountability remain the cornerstone to practice within, and of, the armed forces.
Citizens should expect at a minimum that the ADF operates within the law both overseas and at home and that it treats all people – including its serving and returned personnel – fairly according to established rules and regulations. It appears an open and transparent public inquiry will be needed to identify where those things are not happening, and to put in place corrective strategies that can be monitored and measured as to results.
 The Outsiders, 2018. ‘SAS Allegations are a stitch-up’ Sky News. 10 June 2018. Retrieved: https://www.skynews.com.au/details/_5795733003001
2 F.W Speed, 1987. ‘Command Structure of the Australian Defence Force.’ Canberrra papers on strategy and Defence No 41. Canberra, Australia. Retrieved: http://bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2016-03/sdsc-speed.pdf
3 Australian Attorney-Generals Department, 2018. ‘International Human Rights Systems.’ Australian Government. Canberra, Australia. Retrieved: https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/HumanRights/Pages/International-Human-Rights-System.aspx
4 David Morrison, 2013. ‘Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison message about unacceptable behaviour.’ 12 June 2013. Canberra Australia. Retrieved: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaqpoeVgr8U
5 Dan Oaks and Sam Clark, 2018. ‘The Afghan Files.’ ABC News. Melbourne. Retrieved: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-11/killings-of-unarmed-afghans-by-australian-special-forces/8466642
6 Australian Government, 2018. Department of Defence. Workforce Summary. Chapter 8 – People. Unacceptable Behaviour. Retrieved: http://www.defence.gov.au/annualreports/13-14/part-three/chapter-eight.asp
7 Australian Government, 2001-2015. ‘Incidence of suicide among serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel.’ Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Detailed Analysis). Canberra, Australia. pp133. Retrieved: https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/f8bacce8-e12b-4c14-a789-ed2b292b7678/aihw-phe-218.pdf.aspx?inline=true
Disclaimer: This article was based on a study of varying opinions expressed across numerous social media platforms and does not necessarily reflect the views held by the author.
* Kay Danes OAM is a long-standing member of Civil Liberties Australia. She is a PhD Candidate with Southern Cross University (School of Law and Justice) and holds a Master Degree in Human Rights (Curtin University) and a Graduate Certificate in Human Rights (Curtin University). She has been an Army wife for decades and believes that more people who understand how internal ADF systems work, or don’t work, should disclose what they know to ensure the rights of all ADF personnel are appropriately defended.
Other related CLA articles:
Kay Danes, 2016. ‘ADF Side-Steps Employment Rights’ CLArion Newsletter 04 June 2016.