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.
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…