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Malcolm Fraser: Stephen Smith is right on ADFA

Defence Minister Stephen Smith launches the report into complaints about a culture of bullying and harassment in the ADF. AAP/Department of Defence/Lauren Black

Defence Minister Stephen Smith last week released a statement regarding a series of reports of abuse and bullying, some of it sexual, in the Australian Defence Forces (ADF).

Of particular media and public interest was the so-called “Skype Scandal”, revolving a female cadet being broadcast having sex with a fellow cadet on Skype at the Australian Defence Forces Academy. It’s alleged she suffered subsequent bullying when she reported the incident.

The Kirkham review clears Commandant Commodore Bruce Kafer of any wrongdoing. Kafer was sent on leave after Smith was heavily critical of his handling of the affair, and the review finds no legal basis for dismissing him.

Flinders University military culture expert Ben Wadham provided The Conversation with an initial response to how Smith and the government handled what is a tense and often contested situation.

Now former army and defence minister – and prime minister – Malcolm Fraser (also a Professorial Fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law at Melbourne University) tells us why he believes Smith has handled the matter correctly. He argues there is indeed a greater role for ministerial oversight in military personnel issues.

Please outline your concerns about some of the reporting of how Steven Smith handled to ADFA sex scandal. Are there issues around where you think there’s been misreporting around ministerial responsibility?

The Skype problem I know is still ongoing as there are inquiries underway, and it’s not really finished. But the article by Ben Wadham suggested that acting as he had, the minister had encroached on areas that were traditionally left to the military, that he shouldn’t have done it. That’s not really accurate.

I’m not an authority on what has happened in personnel matters since the amalgamation of the departments and since service ministers were abolished, but certainly in earlier days if there were disciplinary problems, personnel problems, they went to the minister for the army, the adjutant general who was on the military board responsible for personnel matters, would often refer things to the minister, and it was common for people to write for, and on behalf of soldiers, and that would lead to an inquiry.

So ministers then were very much involved, and there was a particular case involving alleged water torture, and Phillip Lynch, when he was army minister, and concerning the behaviour of some commanders in Vietnam to some soldiers who’d done something wrong.

To suggest therefore that Stephen Smith should not have acted in this case because of tradition is just wrong. I’ve got no doubts that the service personnel would prefer the ministers kept out of these matters and that it was left entirely to them to sort things out in the way they wanted to in military terms, but we’ve seen over a long periodthat the forces have not been able to handle all their disciplinary problems. We’ve seen that they’ve had extraordinary difficulty in accommodating when the armed services there are problems.

This suggests that leaving it to the military has not been a very effective way of achieving the objective that is necessary and desirable.

Cadets graduate from ADFA in 2009. AAP/Alan Porrit

Do you think there’s a case for perhaps greater departmental, ministerial involvement in the military, or perhaps organisations outside of the military that could develop structures to deal with some of these problems the military is showing it’s unable to deal with itself, internally?

I believed in the unification of the service structures that took place, but three service ministers were abolished, and it was all put on the plate of the Minister for Defence.

There are many things service ministers used to do that will just not be done, and keeping an eye on personnel matters I suspect is one of them. I know when I was army minister many long years ago, correspondence I had on personnel matters often coming from parents were substantial, even if it wasn’t initiated from outside the army. If there was a particularly sensitive matter the adjutant general would often talk to me about it, as army minister.

So certainly in those days there was not a feeling that ministers had no role. This was certainly going to be answerable in the parliament when something went wrong. And ministers are ultimately responsible for what happens on their watch.

To me, while we haven’t had the full report on this Skype business, and the commandant has been reinstated, because there were no regulations that he transgressed, I would support Stephen Smith when he indicated it was an error of judgement to continue with charges unrelated to this particular incident when this overriding dramatic, and unfortunate Skype incident was being examined.

Other issues, other charges, whatever they were, I believe, certainly should have been set aside, until the issue was handled. As I understand, that was the point Stephen Smith was making, and I believe he was perfectly entitled to make it. Now the report apparently has come out and said that according to military tradition the commandant behaved without fault.

Now, if the inquiry hadn’t been told, or believed that these matters were traditionally left to the military to resolve on their own account, and if the persons enacting the inquiry believed that, then historically it’s just not right.

The minister has been under some criticism since. Some people have said he should apologise, he’s really stuck to his guns, well, he gives me the appearance he’s stuck to his guns, and in the sense I totally support him in that.

And my own experience, either as army minister or defence minister, would have enforced that, and, if you leave these issues to the armed services alone, personnel issues, I believe, will often be handled, in regard to what authority believes to be in the best interest of the armed service, but not necessarily in the best interest of natural justice. People talk about a culture changed, and the need for a culture change has been reinforced by the introduction of women into the armed services in a major way. That surely is a significant test, but it’s a test that other elements of the Australian community seem to have met much better than the military up to this point.

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