Today the Defence Minister Stephen Smith stepped up to the Despatch Box to apologise for decades of cases of reported abuse, mostly of a sexual nature, within the Australian Defence Force. The issue is as much about the fact that the abuse was institutionalised as it was about the response which has been found to have often been poor, even non-existent.
This morning too, in the wake of Stephen Smiths apology on behalf of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, David Hurley, made a similar televised apology.
In terms of significant political issues which have arisen, discussed or been implemented during this, the 43rd parliament, the response was sensibly bipartisan.
There was no questioning of the validity, the reasons and consequences of making the apology as their had been with the indigenous apology. The Opposition Defence spokesperson in the House of Representatives just rose and responded with an equally compassionate and heartfelt statement of regret for events that had transpired. That was followed by a pledge to stamp out institutionalised abuse and statement that all that can be done to cut down abuse will be done.
The apology itself was decades in the making. The delivery of the apology however, in the scheme of things, was swift. In fact the apology was made too fast. On the same morning the apology was announced, Mr Smith walked into the parliament to say sorry to those in the ADF that have been the victim of abuse over recent decades.
So often, issues around the timing of events and policies have plagued the Gillard Government. Again today, timing failed the Labor Party on this issue.
There is no debating that an apology should not have been made. It is the least the government could do after a long period of institutionalised abuse that was either ignored or wrongfully accepted as part of the organisation’s culture. But that apology should certainly have not been made today, even though reports surfaced late last week that such a statement to parliament was firmly on the political agenda.
Victims and their families should have had days or weeks’ notice that an apology was being made, not just hours and an apology even later today should never have been contemplated. Those who have suffered should have been afforded the time to organise travelling to Canberra for the apology, just as those who have been apologised to in the past for other wrongs were.
If those who had endured abuse did not want to attend, they should have at least been given advanced notice that the apology was to be given, so that they could make arrangements to watch Stephen Smith’s speech at home or elsewhere or listen to it on the radio or internet.
Instead, numerous victims will arrive home today to find that their suffering was acknowledged without many of them knowing or having little time for necessary arrangements to be made in order to view Stephen Smith’s apology. Countless current and former members of the defence force will hear the words of Stephen Smith second-hand through sound bites or perhaps in full, though still in replay, on the news and on websites.
It is surprising too that the speech by Mr Smith came before all the inquiries into abuse in the Australian Defence Force had finished. We have already had three separate investigations into different yet related matters.
Today, the Minister for Defence announced that there would be an independent taskforce to investigate the 750 “plausible” claims of abuse which were made to the DLA Piper review. The review by the global law-firm was one of the three investigations set up in response to the Skype sex abuse scandal. The minister announced that the taskforce would investigate individual claims, including attempting to identify alleged perpetrators.
Compensation of up to $50,000 for each valid claim has been offered if claimants waive the right to pursue their claims through all other legal and judicial processes. If alleged victims decide not to seek compensation, the special group led by former WA Supreme Court judge Len R0berts-Smith would decide whether or not to refer individual claims to the authorities.
So the battle is not over for victims. The process continues, but is nearing an end for some. The emotional wounds however will remain forever more.
You cannot help think that an apology, at the very least should have been delayed for weeks, maybe months.
The one certainty is that apology was needed. It was however delivered too soon.
Today the Opposition Leader revealed a broader outline of defence policy for an incoming Liberal National Party Coalition Government, some of it firm commitments, some of it aspirational. That’s the thing about administrations of the right side of the political spectrum, there’s always space in the budget, no matter how tight or how far in deficit the fiscal position is. It’s all about appealing to the need to feel secure, that we’re being looked after and protected by a strong government from nasties within and external to the country. Of course a firm level of defense is always required, but conservative governments like to go a bit further to say the least.
First, in terms of looking after those who have been in the Australian Defence Force, rather than in terms of security, the Coalition, after fairly prominent debate has decided it necessary to “properly” index military pensions. This would happen in the first year of an Abbott Government and, if based on the template of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill, would cost about $1.7 billion over 4 years.
In terms of existing spending commitments, Mr Abbott today said in his speech to the RSL National Conference that within 18 months of taking government, the Coalition would look at a timetable for the acquisition of the troubled Joint Strike Fighter. This is not something to rush into and is a project area where other nations are being increasingly cautious.
One of the first defence capability purchases that the Coalition would make would be a fleet of unmanned aircraft. Mr Abbott said that these capabilities were necessary, especially to provide surveillance over business projects 0n the North West Shelf as well as searching for those pesky asylum seeker boats.
Despite the pledge to immediately purchase drones, Mr Abbott today announced that submarine capabilities are the “probably the most urgent big procurement decision” the government needs to make. These would replace the Collins Class fleet purchased under the Howard Government. Presumably the announcement of submarine construction, to be based in South Australia, means that the Coalition would continue, at least in part, with Labor’s $40 billion pledge to build 12 new submarines
To get a broader look at the needs of the ADF, again, the Coalition would, within 18 months of taking office, proceed with another defence white paper. That means just a year to 18 months after the 2013 defence white paper is released, there will be another one. Surely that one is likely to say exactly the same thing as the one released in 2013. Defence capabilities simply don’t change and evolve that fast, though security challenges can, but this is unlikely, especially with the winding down of the Afghan conflict and future challenges, a term used very loosely, like the rise of China and India firmly in mind.
Finally, there’s an aspiration to grow the defence spend by 3% yearly, once the budget is back in order, surplus, to keep on top of perceived defence materiel and other needs of the broader defence organisation.
So where’s the money coming from? Well, supposedly room will be made in the frontline capabilities budget by making changes, a purge of backroom bureaucrats. This might make some savings, but would in no way go anywhere close to the budgetary savings necessary to accommodate such significant and ongoing funds.
So what else would have to go from the federal budget? Health? Education spending? Maybe that big paid parental leave scheme the Coalition holds onto? Well, most of the priorities are aspirational, so perhaps these departments can take some solace, at least that defence spending might not result in a cull of their staff and programs.
The freed up spending from the planned return of combat troops from Afghanistan though will provide some not insignificant room in the budget of a future government. As a consequence, some of these aspirations might become a reality.
There’s always more money for defence, of course.
Last night the first 200 of what will eventually totally 2500 US Marines arrived in Australia amid mass media attention in the dead of night, backpacks on, firearms strapped to their bodies ready to undertake ongoing joint exercises with their Darwin based Australian counterparts at Robertson Barracks. The first Marine deployment was welcomed at the airport by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel Warren Snowdon, the US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich and Australian Defence Force brass and other personnel.
Australia and the United States have enjoyed a particularly good relationship since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, of which our southern ocean neighbour, New Zealand is also a part. That agreement was struck in the decade after World War Two where the US fought closely with Australians, including in the northern part of our territory.
This latest announcement and the now commenced deployment will only further that defence and broader bilateral relationship between our two nations as we head toward that much talked about “Asian Century” where greater US involvement in the security and economic activity of the nation is a necessity both for America herself and for the region.
The early days after the announcement brought some public disquiet from China, a nation firmly on the economic and military build-up march toward a modern economic superpower, uncertain just what it may mean for the peaceful bolstering of the military in China that any nation expanding rapidly would see as a necessity and a reality.
Our good friends of late in our region, Indonesia also took to looking at the deal with some scepticism and worry with what a greater US focus in the region may mean for it and those other nations around it.
Yet so far both those nations have been quiet in their commentary on the move as it has begun to proceed to the actual deployment stage of troops which has now begun, with crickets now for some time, even now the talk of the plan has proceeded to action.
This seems to indicate that initial fears have now been quelled by some quiet diplomacy between all the parties, recognising that the move should not be seen as a threat the the economic advancement of any nation.
Back home though, the now commenced US troop deployment will bring Australia another benefit outside of the security and bilateral relationship that such a project fosters and helps build further. This deployment of eventually 2500 US Marines will mean great economic benefits for the Northern Territory, in particular, Darwin.
On one count it will be great for the local small and large businesses around the base where the troops will spend their deployment, with a steady additional income stream of significant numbers now available from a captive audience of troops who will frequent local businesses when recreation time permits.
Not only that, but tourism businesses around the Northern Territory and even those in broader Australia will benefit from the substantial tourist dollars that two and a half thousand troops will bring. US troops, will surely want to visit crocodile farms, wildlife parks and even enjoy the substantial fishing opportunities that exist in the Northern Territory.
The deployment has begun and the complaints seem to have died down markedly to basically non-existent. Now all that is left is for the Australian and United States governments to enjoy the greater cooperation between our two nations and the economic and security benefits that brings. Far and above that, the immense economic benefits should not be ignored and should be celebrated along with the other equally important benefits.
It’s Wednesday and that means only two more days of the parliamentary sitting week lie ahead for our federal politicians in Canberra jockeying for momentum going into the May budget. Question Time is likely to be a loud, argumentative and at times farcical affair. Many eyes will be on the Senate where the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, sworn in as a Senator and Minister yesterday will face his first Question Time in the role.
The Opposition without any shadow of a doubt will continue to focus their Question Time efforts on pursuing the Labor Government over its carbon tax and Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) which has a parliamentary report handed down today.
While the Fair Work Australia investigation into Craig Thomson still proceeds at snail pace, it can certainly be expected that there will be a question or two aimed at the Gillard Government over the issue.
The fallout from the Skype sex scandal in the Australian Defence Force may also get an airing in Question Time from the Opposition as it did yesterday in relations to comments from Major General John Cantwell.
Equally predictable is the government focus of their backbencher questions to Ministers, also colloquially known as the “Dorothy Dixer” or “Dorothy Dix”. Again these questions will likely focus on the economy through the spending related to the MRRT windfall as well as other spending allocations made by Prime Minister Gillard and her government.
In the Senate, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr will draw the most focus from interested observers, though not face the most questions as both the government and the Opposition are set to pursue different lines of inquiry. The new Foreign Minister is likely to get a question from his own side, but may also get a question or two related to the Defence Minister from the Coalition in the prism of overseas operations.
There is also a distinct possibility that the Coalition will attempt to suspend Standing Orders in an attempt to challenge the Government after not answering questions though that seems less likely than in recent days because of the exhaustion of content on that front.
Yesterday Question Time in the House of Representatives was quite feisty and resulted in a handful of ejections for one hour under Standing Order 94a, one of those being a Government MP. Two Ministers were also sat down for straying out of the ballpark of relevance in their answers and that is a positive development. So be watching today at 2pm AEDT where the drama that is the play called Question Time looks set to continue with loud interjections, irrelevant answers and plenty of name-calling.
The Gillard Government, via its Defence Minister, Stephen Smith has announced, albeit in an abbreviated fashion, the findings of no less than 6 separate inquiries into Defence Force culture in the wake of the so-called “Skype sex scandal” which saw a young female Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) cadet filmed in the act of intercourse. This disgraceful act was then transmitted to other ADFA candidates via webcam on Skype. This event triggered the series of committees and inquiries which reported today.
A number of complaints came to light in the wake of the announcement of this serious of inquiries, showing that the Defence Force has much work to do to stamp out inappropriate acts and indeed the event which precipitated the flood of reviews into the Defence Force became subject of a criminal inquiry which is ongoing.
The findings of the reports, including the DLA Piper Review will see further investigation into what the Secretary of the Defence Department Duncan Lewis called “plausible allegations” arising out of the initial examination of near to 800 complaints brought to the notice of the Review. These investigations date back to allegations of inappropriate behaviour as far back as the mid 1900’s and may well see a stream of criminal cases brought in the future.
A new body has been recommended by DLA Piper to investigate the claims along with a possibility of an apology to complainants and even compensation floated as potentially appropriate methods of rectification. Surely though, allegations of significant veracity should be referred directly to an independent investigative body like the police, not some body, no matter how “independent” set up by the Australian Defence Force. Yes, many cases may fall outside the statute of limitations and they should be dealt with in a swift and appropriate manner but where possible, all suspected criminal behaviour should be a matter for the police.
In the wake of the events which brought all this action into being, the Commodore of the ADFA was stood down pending an investigation into the propriety of his actions following the grievous incident involving the female cadet. This inquiry found that Commodore Bruce Kafer had no case to answer for his actions.
So there is to be no immediate scapegoat for the terribly damaging events that have occurred within the Defence Force and particularly the ADFA in this case. The Commodore who was in the position of highest authority will escape punishment for overseeing and not being able to identify and respond to what is a sick culture within areas of the Defence Force at the very least.
It remains to be seen whether any one individual or series thereof will be held responsible for events involving ADFA or those who have allowed the culture in the wider ADF to continue will be made to be responsible for their dereliction of duty. This certainly differs from previous practice in government where someone, usually of relatively high office is made a scapegoat, a smokescreen to distract from broader action which can be politically painful, but hey, we may have another apology or a further review and don’t we just love those…
Should we pull all our troops out of combat, training and reconstruction roles in Afghanistan in the wake of an incident like this? I tend to agree with the position of the Gillard Government, the ADF and the Tony Abbott led Coalition when they say, no we should not contemplate a precipitate withdrawal from our responsibilities to train, reconstruct and make the war-torn nation safer.
An immediate withdrawal of all troops in an instantaneous and collective manner would result in Afghanistan becoming far more de-stabilised and result in a likely mass return of the Taliban to areas of the nation where they have largely been eradicated from.
Indeed, there is a valid argument that a longer combat, training and reconstruction role is essential for the long-term, at leas relative stability of Afghanistan. This ongoing role is essential for the future stability of Afghanistan politically and economically.
If there is one major thing that this incident tells us, it is that Afghanistan is not necessarily more or less dangerous than it has been previously. What this dreadful event, the second similar incident involving Australian forces, may tell us is that better vetting of ANA and other security force’s candidates is required.
This approach calls for more intelligence resources and time to conduct background checks, not less time with talk of deadlines of a specific withdrawal timetable. Furthermore it calls for more time and effort put into the training, combat and reconstruction roles.
The Government and other governments contemplating such circumstances will find it incredibly difficult to justify in a political environment where there have been casualties and voters are becoming war weary. The current global economic doldrums will also put immense pressure on political will. However, the point remains, that what is required is not necessarily an escalation in troop numbers or operations, but chiefly, in relation to this attack, a simple revision of vetting processes for Afghan security forces which can be worked on, in unison with the Afghan Government.