Smith will need balls to tackle the top brass
There is great resistance at senior levels of the military to the idea of a Royal Commission into decades of sexual abuse and bastardisation within the defence force.
The brass doesn’t want it. They don’t want the inconvenience and embarrassment. But they will find it hard to head it off now.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith, having lifted the lid on the issue by commissioning a crack team from the law firm DLA Piper to conduct a review, has little choice. If he fails to take action he will be a laughing stock.
And there was a strong indication yesterday that Defence HQ recognises this and is preparing to fall into line.
The Australian Defence Association, known for dutifully reflecting the views of the military chiefs, came out in support of a royal commission.
According to ADA executive director Neil James, the reasons being advanced for it are “nonsense”, but there is nevertheless a need to “clear the air”.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston has pooh-poohed the idea, calling on the government to simply “round up” those who suffered abuse and pay them compensation.
“I’m concerned that for the victims - and I think we need to focus on the victims - a royal commission would simply delay their entitlement to compensation, an apology, or whatever we resolve to do about that,” Johnston said yesterday.
But, unless Smith ignores the recommendations of the DLA Piper review that has created momentum for an inquiry, Johnston’s concern is misplaced.
A royal commission would not deal with this side of things.
The review’s executive summary, now released in full after Smith put out a heavily censored version in March, says a royal commission or judicial inquiry - or even a parliamentary committee - “would be too formal and cumbersome for the task of identifying persons who might be deserving of reparation”.
The authors could have added that it would also be too insensitive a process.
Many of the victims have been seriously damaged by their experience. Subjecting them to a grilling by high-priced barristers would do them no good at all.
The review suggests that identifying those who have suffered abuse in the ADF over the years, providing compensation and, where necessary, helping with counselling, should be dealt with through a totally separate mechanism.
“Compensation schemes have been established by the states and by some churches to provide reparation for persons affected by abusive behaviour for which the state or church accepts responsibility,” it says.
A similar scheme for ADF victims could be administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, perhaps with a low level payment for people who can establish they were abused and a higher payments for those experiencing ongoing or substantial damage.
Clearly any half-way competent government could design such a scheme without the need for involvement by a royal commission.
The aim of a royal commission would not be to gather evidence for prosecution of offenders, either. The authors of the review have in mind something more limited.
The recommendation appears in a section dealing primarily with abuse, harassment and rape at the Australian Defence Force Academy in the 1990s, before an inquiry led to a shake-up at this educational institution for junior officers.
The report argues a royal commission could clarify whether any of the “suspected rapists”, or others who witnessed rape and did not intervene, are still in the defence force. They could, it says, be in senior roles.
The point is that such people are unfit for high rank, and should be weeded out. This would be the royal commission’s primary role.
Clearly strong ministerial intervention is necessary if anything is to happen. The report makes that clear enough.
The rigidity of the Defence mindset is shown by the department’s rules on how sexual assault matters are to be handled.
Once criminal or disciplinary proceedings are pending, the report says, no administrative action is to be taken against the alleged offender.
In other words, he can’t even be moved to a different job or another area.
The same holds if a prosecution does not proceed - even though such a decision might have little or nothing to do with whether the reported assault occurred.
“This approach does not apply in respect of other offences,” the report says.
Of course it doesn’t. A suspected arsonist would not be left in charge of a fuel dump, for example.
Yet when it comes to sexual abuse in the ADF an assault victim can be obliged to continue working with the alleged perpetrator.
As a result, sexual assault victims and others are denied essential protection, the report says, adding that the rules should be reviewed urgently.
Smith’s relationship with the military, already tense, will not be helped by all this.
But he deserves credit for putting the issue of ADF sexual abuse firmly on the agenda, even though he has made a rod for his own back.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network. His column appears every Saturday in News Ltd papers.
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