With Navy’s record of abuse, asylum boat claims can’t be ignored

Australians have become very aware of the negative cultural tendencies of the ADF. AAP/Scott Fisher

Prime minister Tony Abbott’s three-word slogan “stop the boats” may be meeting its promise. Last Friday, Abbott was “very pleased” to point out that it was the “50th day without an illegal boat arriving in Australia”. However, what damage is the policy doing to the Australian Navy’s reputation?

Cabinet ministers reacted with mawkish nationalism to ABC and Fairfax Media reports of Navy misconduct towards asylum seekers – including allegations of asylum seekers’ hands being deliberately burnt – exposing a soft spot in the government’s hardline immigration policy. Clearly, it is akin to treason to question Australia’s defence institutions.

The politicisation of the military threatens the national interest by using the Navy as its stooge. It is damage that cannot be controlled by a populist appeal to military innocence nor by maligning the ABC and its journalistic independence.

On January 22, the ABC reported that the Navy had boarded an asylum seeker vessel. Asylum seekers alleged they had been treated inhumanely. The ABC reported the passenger’s claims as worthy of further investigation.

Here was an example of the media acting as a fourth estate, which is especially important in a climate of government-driven clandestine military operations. When the Australian public are kept in the dark, it is the media’s role to illuminate and inform. It is an important element of democratic relations.

The claims generated a storm of ministerial outbursts. Abbott recommended that the ABC’s editorial policy should be sympathetic to the “home team”, and an immediate efficiency review of the ABC (and SBS) was announced. Immigration minister Scott Morrison described the reports as “malicious and unfounded slurs”.

Defence minister David Johnston was almost lachrymose, saying that the ABC’s “hearsay, innuendo and rumour” made him “sick to the stomach”. Foreign minister Julie Bishop led the call for an ABC apology to the Navy.

ABC managing director Mark Scott publicly responded with regret if the reports led anyone to believe that the alleged abuse was beyond doubt. The ABC should have been more precise in its reporting, but that is not in itself any evidence of bias against the home team, Scott said.

Yet the story has refused to go away. Fairfax Media later interviewed the asylum seekers who reported the use of capsicum spray and the prohibition of the use of toilets. Navy personnel are alleged to have used racist slurs such as “Oh, you’re a monkey from Africa”, and:

F— you … You choose to come from your country, we don’t ask you to come.

Navy chief Ray Griggs has denied the claims that Navy personnel forcibly burnt the hands of asylum seekers, saying on Twitter:

Based on everything I know there is no basis to these allegations - none.

As a former serving member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), I understand the pressure and the urgency in such situations. I also know that in most cases the ADF operates in a professional manner. But the Navy is not beyond reproach as the various government ministers would have us believe. In fact, their overstated umbrage requires us to test their claims.

Over the years, Australians have become very aware of the negative cultural tendencies of the ADF. The HMAS Success investigations in 2010 illuminated a culture of male tribalism that involved systematic sexual predation and binge drinking.

The Skype incident sparked a review by legal firm DLA Piper into physical, sexual and other abuse by defence personnel. DLA Piper reported on systematic and entrenched cultures of abuse across the ADF going back 50 years. The HMAS Leeuwin and Cerberus have also been revealed in recent years as two particularly toxic and dangerous environments to serve in.

David Johnston and Tony Abbott were among the government ministers to leap to the defence of the Australian Navy. AAP/Nikki Short

Ritual initiations involving the abuse of junior seamen were reported late last year. Senior seamen had inserted bottles and pens into the bottoms of their colleagues in a bizarre ritual of fraternity. This was all on board the HMAS Ballarat, a vessel engaged in border protection.

Late last month, the Australian media reported on an ADF investigation into a racist Facebook page hosted by a far-right group, the Australia Defence League (ADL). In one post, a Navy member wrote: “I’m about to head out today to deal with these f—ers” in response to an ADL post that asylum seekers came to Australia “to jump on Centrelink and get free government housing”.

The tenor of this group is distinctly tribal, white Australian and nationalist. Last week’s ministerial sentiment and the government’s current immigration policy is the sustaining voice of such dispositions.

The ADF recognises the danger of tribalism unleashed. The 2011 ADF personal conduct review explained that “tribalism” represents a paradox. On the one hand, it underlies that group cohesion required, for example, to mobilise seamen for an offshore boarding. However, tribalism also creates the conditions of excessive defensiveness marked by intense prejudice toward others.

The review also recognised the importance for relations of trust between the government, the ADF and the Australian people. The current government’s border protection policy treats this important principle with disregard. Former Navy Captain John Ingram, involved in managing refugees in the 1980s, knows this well. In a recent media interview, he explained that:

The concept of turning boats back is absolutely abhorrent. I have an issue with the hardline approach, the fact that RAN sailors are (now) being used for political purposes.

The policy, Ingram argued, is generating anger and confusion within Navy ranks. It is also generating significant public distrust.