Peter Dutton has begun his tenure as defence minister by delivering a very public slap to his most senior military adviser, chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell.
Dutton’s overriding of Campbell’s initial command decision to revoke a meritorious unit citation that had been awarded to some 3,000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan is a humiliation to the general who is supposedly in command of the military.
The minister’s claim that he has full faith in Campbell does not alter this point.
On an issue that goes to the core of military professionalism, ethics and discipline, the government has not trusted Campbell’s judgment.
The opposition is no better – it has supported Dutton’s decision.
We don’t know how Campbell is taking it, but Dutton says he’s “pragmatic”. In such circumstances, some military leaders would be considering their position.
The salt has been rubbed in by Dutton seeking to highlight the override, with a leaked story in The Australian and media interviews.
Dutton’s argument that “the decision [Campbell] made in the first instance is perfectly reasonable. But my judgment is that we look at the circumstances now,” doesn’t pass (as the government might say) the pub test.
Of course the government overrule effectively came months ago, after the release of the Brereton report on allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, which said the citation should be revoked.
The war crimes inquiry said there was “credible information” of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners of war “were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group”. It recommended the ADF chief refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, involving 19 individuals.
Faced with pressure from veterans and from some within the special forces, Scott Morrison was quick to indicate he opposed the proposal to revoke the citation, and Campbell began a tactical retreat.
Former defence minister Linda Reynolds smoothed the waters to give time for consideration. But it was always clear what was going to happen.
A less assertive minister, however, might have found a form of announcement to allow Campbell to have saved a little more face (assuming he wished to).
As he grasps the reins of a portfolio he has long coveted, Dutton is sending the message that (unlike his predecessor) he wants be an activist minister who is in the public eye.
In considering how the citation award has been handled, it is important to understand exactly what it is.
The Brereton inquiry made separate recommendations about the Meritorious Unit Citation which went to the Special Operations Task Group, and individual awards, and it explained the reasons for viewing them differently.
“Although many members of the Special Operations Task Group demonstrated great courage and commitment and although it had considerable achievements, what is now known must disentitle the unit as a whole to eligibility for recognition for sustained outstanding service.
"It has to be said that what this Report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations. It is not meritorious.
"The inquiry has recommended the revocation of the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Group as a whole for those events.
"In contrast, the cancellation of an individual award such as a distinguished service award impacts on the status and reputation of the individual concerned, could not be undertaken on a broad-brush collective basis, and would require procedural fairness.”
Brereton is making a very reasonable distinction between collective and individual responsibility, and the need to send a broad signal about, and from, the collective.
In rejecting Campbell’s judgment, Dutton and the government have rebuffed the official inquiry, led by a distinguished and experienced judge – a bad look of the political taking precedence over the legal.
One has to wonder just how much will finally be delivered as a result of the Brereton investigation. The process to get prosecutions for alleged crimes is underway but by its nature it will be incredibly complex and difficult.
Which, one could argue, made it even more important to carry through the symbolic gesture of removing the citation.
Meanwhile on another front, Morrison on Monday announced a royal commission into past suicides in the defence forces and among veterans.
This wasn’t the government’s preference. Its plan was for an ongoing commissioner on the issue, but that did not satisfy many families and veterans, and the government couldn’t muster the parliamentary numbers.
Now both processes will be undertaken, the government says.
The outcome on these very different issues – the citation and the royal commission – reflect the political power of veterans.