Defence experts warn of a split between the government and the military after the prime minister intervened to override the chief of the Defence Force’s decision to revoke the meritorious unit citation awarded to Australian special forces who served in Afghanistan. By Karen Middleton.

Morrison overrides ADF chief

The chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell.
The chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell.
Credit: Mick Tsikas / Pool / AFP

Australia’s military leaders may retrospectively amend eligibility for the meritorious unit citation awarded to special forces members who served in Afghanistan so that only those suspected of war crimes lose the honour, not all 3000 recipients as originally announced.

The Australian Defence Force is believed to be considering the move after Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively overrode a decision of the chief of the Defence Force (CDF), General Angus Campbell.

Campbell had announced he planned to strip all who served in the Special Operations Task Groups between 2007 and 2013 of the meritorious service ribbon in the wake of the horrific findings of the Brereton report that some ADF personnel murdered Afghan civilians and prisoners in cold blood.

However, The Saturday Paper understands the ADF leadership is now examining whether it can amend the eligibility for the unit citation, so it is only stripped from those against whom adverse findings have been made.

The objective is to penalise those against whom there is credible evidence of war crimes while continuing to honour those soldiers who did nothing wrong – and who, in some cases, spoke up.

Morrison’s intervention this week over the meritorious citation – two weeks after the Brereton report was released – created a potentially dangerous split between the government and the military, which was noted in the security community.

The prime minister had not read the unredacted version of the Brereton report when he made the decision to override Campbell, although Defence Minister Linda Reynolds had.

Some defence specialists have told The Saturday Paper that without a compromise, Morrison’s political intervention might be enough to prompt the CDF to resign.

Some are also warning the intervention bodes ill for the prospects of genuinely reforming the dark elements of ADF culture, suggesting politicians are going to jump at the first sign of public pushback.

Defence Minister Reynolds told The Saturday Paper that General Campbell would lead the process of change prompted by the Brereton report’s findings.

“The prime minister and I have full confidence in the CDF,” Reynolds said.

“I know he is committed to putting in place, in consultation with government, a rigorous and considered process to address all of these issues. I’m aware there are strongly held and passionate views in the Australian community about the Brereton inquiry and its outcomes. But Australians, first and foremost, expect that the leaders of our ADF and the government will work through these issues carefully, steering a steady and consistent path, and demonstrate that the matters will be dealt with in a fair, balanced and proportionate manner across the ranks.”

The minister said the ADF leadership would take time to “work through the options” for responding to the Brereton report and would “consult and work with the government to plan the way forward”.

It is not clear whether General Campbell advised the government of details of his planned response before making public a redacted version of Justice Paul Brereton’s report on November 19.

During a press conference, Campbell endorsed the report’s recommendations, including to revoke the meritorious unit citation.

“I have accepted all of the inspector-general’s findings and a comprehensive implementation plan is being developed to action all of his 143 recommendations and any additional measures necessary,” Campbell said.

The report found credible evidence that at least 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners had been murdered by Australian special forces soldiers in 23 separate incidents. Justice Brereton said 25 Australians were believed responsible and recommended a criminal investigation with a view to prosecuting 19 of them.

Campbell singled out the recommendation to revoke the citation and said he would advise Governor-General David Hurley – himself a retired general and former CDF – to do so. He said he would be reviewing a range of honours and awards.

“Units live and fight as a team,” said Campbell. “The report acknowledges therefore that there is also a collective responsibility for what is alleged to have happened.”

Campbell also announced that the Special Air Service’s 2 squadron, only one of those involved in the alleged crimes, was being disbanded.

But opponents of Campbell’s decisions, especially from within the special forces, began a campaign against the revocation.

The prime minister clearly sensed the public backlash.

On Monday, he contradicted his Defence Force chief, declaring that “no decisions have been made” on the unit citation.

That evening, Campbell issued a statement echoing the prime minister’s words.

“No decisions have yet been made with regard to the appropriate options and approaches,” his statement said. Any further action would be considered as part of the implementation plan and overseen by the minister and a special panel she has appointed.

There have been 26 meritorious unit citations since the award’s inception in 1991 and four unit citations for gallantry, some of which were made retrospectively for heroic acts in past conflicts. Any decision to withdraw the Afghanistan unit citation cannot be appealed because it is not included in the list of awards and honours within the remit of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal.

Late this week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton suggested a compromise on Campbell’s original position – including on medals – was in the works.

“In the vast majority of cases they are exceptional people,” Dutton said of those special forces personnel who served with distinction and without blemish. “Those citations, those medals will stand. In cases where people have committed a heinous crime, well, there is a consideration of that matter. But it’s been dealt with now and I think every Australian hears that we’ve got the back of our diggers, we’re truly respectful of what they do.”

There is speculation Reynolds may lose the Defence portfolio to Dutton in the upcoming ministerial reshuffle, which is being prompted by the retirement of former Finance minister Mathias Cormann and the year-long absence of Immigration minister David Coleman on personal leave.

Notably, Dutton also expressed confidence in Angus Campbell.

“General Campbell, like the men and women that he leads, are exceptional Australians and I think we should take our hat off to each one of them, starting with the chief of the Defence Force all the way down,” the Home Affairs minister told 2GB Radio on Thursday.

Some ADF personnel and veterans are angry that the Brereton report effectively exonerates those higher up the chain of command. Both Campbell and the chief of army, Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, held senior positions in Australia’s Defence Force leadership in Afghanistan and both have served in the special forces.

Campbell said any decisions on revoking medals for valour, gallantry or bravery would be left until “any further processes or proceedings are concluded”.

Morrison’s intervention on the issue this week marks the latest in a series of awkward positions Angus Campbell has found himself placed in by the Coalition government.

In 2014, he worked alongside Morrison, then Immigration minister, heading the newly created Operation Sovereign Borders.

For taking on the controversial and doubtless uncomfortable role – in which he was required to refuse to answer journalists’ questions about “on-water matters” –Campbell was promoted to the three-star rank of lieutenant-general.

From there, he was made chief of army and then elevated to the four-star rank of general as CDF in 2018.

Then, two months before last year’s federal election, Campbell withdrew ADF personnel from a news conference with then Defence minister Christopher Pyne to avoid them being used as props when questions turned to political matters.

“My apologies,” Campbell said, tapping Pyne on the shoulder. “I might just ask that the military officers step aside while you’re answering these kind of questions.”

Morrison’s intervention this week represents the second time this year the prime minister has rejected Campbell’s view.

The general and others in the ADF had “strongly” recommended against posthumously awarding the military’s highest honour for valour – the Victoria Cross – to Ordinary Seaman Edward “Teddy” Sheean for his World War II service.

In 1942, the 18-year-old disobeyed an order and strapped himself to the anti-aircraft gun on board HMAS Armidale, firing on enemy aircraft until the ship disappeared beneath the waves, dragging Sheean to his death.

The original application and subsequent reviews determined his actions did not meet the standard required for a VC.

Campbell advised it was a dangerous precedent to override the careful findings of a tribunal and could invite “a swathe” of applications and also place the Queen, who ultimately makes such awards, in a difficult position.

But Morrison ignored the military advice and made the award – again in response to a public and media campaign.

The VC was formally awarded to Sheean’s family at a ceremony at Government House on Tuesday.

“He is a shining example to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force,” Angus Campbell said at the ceremony. “A beacon by which to navigate.”

It seems Campbell has now also seen the light – the one on Capital Hill.

For support, veterans can contact Open Arms, 24 hours a day, on 1800 011 046.

For anyone in need of support, contact Lifeline at any time on 13 11 14.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2020 as "On points of honour".

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