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The new Defence minister made his mark this week, blocking a recommendation of the war crimes inquiry to strip special forces soldiers of a coveted award. The move has some worried he could further politicise Defence. By Karen Middleton.

How Peter Dutton will transform Defence

Peter Dutton visits the 3rd Brigade at Lavarack Barracks army base in Townsville this month.
Credit: Facebook

Peter Dutton is shaking things up. But those at the top of the Australian Defence Force are mindful that, in his new job, the Defence minister wields a sword with a double blade.

Dutton’s reversal of Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell’s plan to strip 3000 special forces personnel of a meritorious unit citation for their service in Afghanistan is being seen as decisive, if controversial.

But while it demonstrates power, the move also underlined the former Home Affairs minister’s willingness – and that of his prime minister – to prioritise the government’s political fortunes over some other considerations in Defence. While one characteristic is welcomed, the other is not.

Australia Defence Association (ADA) executive director Neil James has voiced the private concerns in the Defence community about the risks in the government’s intervention and the message it sends.

James told Sky News on Monday that the ADA disagrees with Dutton’s decision to intervene.

“It breaks several important constitutional principles about civil control of the military and the fact it’s reciprocal,” he said. “It isn’t just that he’s overridden the CDF’s statutory command responsibility to make decisions about the Defence Force on important matters. There really hasn’t been a serious discussion about this.”

Later, James described bluntly that reciprocity means the military and civilian leadership don’t take over each other’s jobs.

“To keep the gun out of politics,” he told The Saturday Paper, “you’ve got to keep the politics out of the gun.”

At the same time, Dutton’s boldness is being applauded.

“I expect that I might be impressed with Peter Dutton,” one Defence analyst says. “It’s about time we had someone who is willing to make decisions.”

Already the new Defence minister is more publicly assertive than either of his most recent predecessors, Linda Reynolds and Marise Payne.

Some believe he may fight for better access to government for Australian Defence industry and is likely to increase the drive for a greater sovereign weapons development capability.

But the downside to his influence at the cabinet table, they say, is the prospect of further politicisation of the Defence portfolio.

 

Dutton enters the Defence portfolio at a tense moment. In particular, the Brereton report into war crimes, and the recommendation to strip the meritorious unit citation awarded to the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), has become a focus for protest.

Published in redacted form in November, Brereton’s report found credible evidence that some Australian special forces soldiers had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Justice Brereton’s shocking findings reverberated through the ADF and around the world. He found evidence that 25 ADF personnel had been directly involved in the unlawful deaths of 39 Afghan civilians. The government has established a special war crimes prosecutor’s office to further investigate under criminal law.

The ADF accepted the recommendations and acted on some immediately.

Campbell announced he would remove the Special Air Service regiment’s 2 squadron – around which many of the allegations were centred – from the military’s order of battle, effectively scrubbing it from the history books.

He has done so with little objection, including from the government.

But his decision to immediately strip the unit citation from the whole SOTG was met with strong pushback from the special forces community and its supporters.

Critics argue it was hypocritical that those, including Campbell, who were in the chain of command at the time but said they were not aware of the alleged crimes, have been allowed to keep their individual medals while the group citation was to be removed.

Others believe the citation issue is being used to divert attention from the war crimes allegations and to muddy ideas about culpability.

Several analysts fear the government’s decision to keep the citation and only strip it later from those proven guilty by a court or military tribunal could send a bad message to allies and adversaries alike – that it is subject to populist pressure and downplaying responsibility for atrocities.

Dutton’s decision to intervene has driven a wedge between Defence chiefs and the special forces, with the government taking the side of protesting personnel. The move has an eye to the electoral power of ADF and ex-ADF voters – and their families and supporters – in key marginal seats, especially in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.

WA MP Andrew Hastie, assistant Defence minister and a former member of the SAS, stood beside Dutton in Perth on Tuesday as he spoke of his decision.

The Morrison government also confirmed this week that it would establish a royal commission into veterans’ suicide.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had opposed a royal commission until two of his Liberal MPs – former servicemen Phil Thompson in the ADF-heavy marginal Queensland seat of Herbert, and Gavin Pearce, in the marginal Tasmanian seat of Braddon – threatened to cross the floor in parliament to back it.

Outspoken former soldier turned independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie also campaigned for the inquiry.

Morrison has now agreed to the inquiry, to begin in July, but is insisting his proposed alternative of a standing national veterans commissioner also be established in parallel. The commissioner would start work without waiting for the royal commission’s findings, which could take several years.

Both the royal commission and citation decisions signify an increased government desire to be seen responding sympathetically to veterans. But some are concerned that government and media mythologising around the ADF has created the atmosphere for growing politicisation and potentially undermines the organisation’s capacity to do the clean-up required in the wake of Brereton’s findings.

The Labor opposition, equally fearful of a veteran-led political backlash, is backing the government on both.

“We welcome what the new minister has done,” shadow Veterans’ Affairs minister Shayne Neumann said this week.

 

Managing the fallout from the Brereton report will be a key challenge in Dutton’s new role. One senior Defence figure warns that appearing to excuse war crimes is dangerous.

“It seeks to undermine the cultural shift the ADF are seeking to pursue,” the expert says. “The ADF leadership feel a deep sense of failure by the institution. For the government to undercut that is not good.”

Neil James says the “world is watching”. A furious James warned of comparisons with the Nazis.

“What we actually have to solve is the underlying issue that some Australian soldiers committed war crimes,” he told Sky News on Monday. “Now, whether we can convict them in a criminal court or not is irrelevant to the fact that we have to fix a problem in the special forces and in [other] parts of the Defence Force at all levels of command and show the world that the ADF is not the Waffen-SS. Now this isn’t rocket science.”

James argues Brereton made his recommendation for a good reason.

“A meritorious unit citation is a collective award, not an individual medal,” he said. “So if you bask in the collective acclaim, you have to cop some of the blame if some of the service isn’t meritorious.”

Like others to whom The Saturday Paper spoke, James believes it was probably a mistake to award the citation to such a large group – and one, in the SOTG, artificially raised for that operation – rather than to permanently formed separate units within the ADF.

“They need to take the citations away from the people who don’t deserve it,” James said. “And that [doesn’t] just include the people who are involved in war crimes, it involves the people who were involved in the covering up of the war crimes and the people who are still in denial that war crimes were committed.”

He said the campaigners were shutting down an essential public debate.

“How are we going to convince the rest of the world that the ADF can restore professionalism in its force when we can’t even debate it publicly in Australia, based on facts, concepts and constitutional principles?”

Several people in the Defence community told The Saturday Paper that it was probably also a mistake for Campbell to have moved so quickly to accept the Brereton recommendation. But they said overriding him brought its own significant risks.

Coming after the government rejected Campbell’s advice last year against overturning an earlier refusal to award a posthumous Victoria Cross to World War II seaman Teddy Sheean, Dutton’s move further strains the relationship between the government and its military leadership.

Neither the CDF nor Minister Dutton were available for interview.

Earlier in the week, Dutton paired his explanation of the decision with praise for General Campbell.

“There’s not a finer soldier in the country than Angus Campbell,” he told 2GB. “The Chief of Defence Force has served our country for decades and he has, I think, a remarkable reputation, not just here, but around the world.”

John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, says Dutton’s decision was a rebuke of Campbell.

But on whether the damage will be lasting, Blaxland says the CDF will likely just absorb it and seek to move on.

“Angus Campbell is somebody who’s pragmatic and who is acutely conscious of where his limits of authority lie – and the fact that Peter Dutton gets to call the shots – and he will dutifully comply,” Blaxland says. “But there’s no question that this is a slap in the face.”

Campbell has been dragooned into the government’s political agenda before, having been the first uniformed officer seconded to the then Immigration Department to run its anti-asylum seeker Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013.

The Immigration minister at the time was Scott Morrison.

Campbell was promoted from two-star major-general to three-star lieutenant-general rank to take the job. As a senior officer on a trajectory to the top, had he refused the position he would have had no prospect of further promotion.

It is open to Campbell to resign if he cannot accept the government’s direction. But that would be an enormous decision with implications for Australia’s reputation. There is no sign he is contemplating that and within the Defence community, he is being urged not to do so.

“He’s pretty stoic and he’s quite guarded in what he says and how he positions himself,” Blaxland says. “And I think part of that is because there is an increased recognition that what we did for the last two decades isn’t what the future is going to look like and we can’t afford to eat ourselves up over this. We need to deal with it but also move on and prepare for what the future may hold.”

 

Neil James’ claim that the world is watching is already being borne out. On January 25, the Pentagon announced it was initiating a review of its own special forces’ operations in Afghanistan in the wake of the Brereton report’s findings.

The Saturday Paper has been told some allies expressed concerns about Australia’s special forces’ behaviour during high-tempo periods of the Afghan war. The findings of the Brereton inquiry have reignited what one analyst described as “circumspection about Australian activities among key stakeholders”. It is not clear whether that will affect enthusiasm for collaboration in future operations.

The concerns are not believed to have gone to specific allegations of war crimes but rather questioning a “cowboy” attitude and a high kill count.

Former special forces soldier Heston Russell, who has become an outspoken campaigner on the citation and other veterans’ issues, downplayed the Brereton report’s findings on Sky News this week.

“What we did at our level was fantastic,” he said on Monday. “As a special operations task group alone, we removed 11,000 insurgents from the battle space, and we are now discussing 25 [in fact, it is 39] alleged murders in the Brereton report. One is bad. But let’s talk about the law of ratios here. That’s a pretty bloody good job. And where are those good news stories?”

In an interview with The Australian newspaper after he was sworn in last month, Dutton said he had told the CDF and departmental secretary Greg Moriarty to provide all available support to the troops and get procurement projects back on track.

“There are priorities that we will focus on which will make it very clear to our troops that the government has their back,” Dutton said.

Some senior figures were privately alarmed.

“It is implying that the ADF leadership don’t, but I do,” one says. “It’s one of those things that can look good initially but turn bad over time. People expect the government and the ADF leadership to act together.”

There is concern in the Defence community that such politically driven language is both short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive.

The government will now seek to turn the policy focus in Defence to challenges of the future not the past.

Morrison announced last week that Australia would formally and finally end its operations in Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Under Dutton, Defence must now prepare for the next conflict – whatever and wherever that may be.

Many analysts expect it will be closer to home.

“There are significant pointers to the future of war being something that will require all three services [Army, Air Force and Navy] to work intimately together, collaboratively, in a way that they just haven’t had to in the past,” John Blaxland says.

He says engaging more deeply in the Asian region should be one of three key Defence priorities as Australia moves beyond the Afghanistan conflict.

“That is a space where we have dropped the ball,” he says. “Our involvement in the Middle East has sucked the oxygen out of our ability to apply considered reasoned prioritisation of effort on our relationships in the neighbourhood. And we’re playing catch up now.”

He says the other major challenges for Dutton will be managing the timeliness and cost of the multibillion-dollar acquisitions of military hardware – as he identified – and managing the US’s expectations of Australia, as tensions rise with China.

Blaxland warns that the government’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Payne on Thursday, to block Victoria’s participation in China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, will see relations with the superpower deteriorate further.

“I think this is likely to generate an even more adversarial approach towards Australia from China,” he says, warning it may now make Australian military operations in the South China Sea even more difficult.

Dutton appears unconcerned.

“We aren’t going to be bullied by anyone,” he told Radio 2GB on Thursday. “We are going to stand up for what we believe in and that’s exactly what we’ve done here.”

Over the past three decades, the Defence portfolio has become known as the “departure lounge”. Ministers arrived late in their political careers and retired after a short stint. Marise Payne was the first Defence minister since Kim Beazley to be promoted further. There have been 15 Defence ministers in the past 30 years, 12 of them in the past two decades.

It is not clear yet whether Dutton sees the job as a pathway up or out to more lucrative endeavours.

Townsville-based MP for Herbert Phil Thompson is among those strongly endorsing his fellow Queenslander’s credentials, calling him “strong” and “a very good leader”. He also took to Sky News to give his endorsement: “Dutts is at the helm.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "How Peter Dutton will transform Defence".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.