The government is getting itself onto very sticky paper in the developing row over revoking the citation awarded to the Special Operations Task Group that served in Afghanistan because of alleged atrocities committed by a number of its members.
Announcing the findings of the Brereton inquiry, the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, was crystal clear.
He’d accepted the report’s recommendation “and will write to the Governor-General requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013”.
The rationale was that “units live and fight as a team. The report acknowledges, therefore, that there is also a collective responsibility for what is alleged to have happened,” he said.
This citation is distinct from honours and awards made to individual soldiers, which will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The planned revocation generated an immediate backlash from some of those who’d served, and their supporters, with a petition gaining many thousands of signatures.
Now, the future of the citation is up in the air.
The Defence Department told Sunday’s ABC Insiders program: “Defence is preparing a comprehensive implementation plan to action the Inspector-General’s recommendations, with the oversight of the Minister for Defence through the recently established Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel. Relevant agencies are being consulted, and advice will be provided to Government.
"It is important to note that this will take time due to the complexity of the issues outlined in the report. Final decisions on this advice will be a matter for Government.
"Any further action on the Meritorious Unit Citation, including any recommendation to the Governor-General, will be considered as part of the implementation plan.”
So when Campbell said he had accepted the Brereton recommendations in general, and the citation one in particular, it apparently did not mean quite what it seemed. The government appears to be leaving its options open to override the CDF.
Scott Morrison is highly sensitive to issues concerning the military – those serving and veterans.
Last week, asked on 2GB whether he supported the removal of the citation from some 3000 troops Morrison said: “Well, I’m waiting for General Campbell to be able to finalise his set of recommendations about what he proposes to do. And I know this is a very sensitive and controversial issue. It’s complex.”
So what are the factors in this complexity?
One: The Brereton report was unequivocal. “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.”
Justice Brereton was not unmindful of the proper behaviour of many of the soldiers. But he made the point that revocation was being recommended “as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Task Group as a whole for those events”.
Two: Campbell was in no professional or moral doubt what he should do.
Three: The government is feeling it may not be worth the public fight and the angst to have the citation quashed.
Its removal would have costs.
But so would heading off its removal.
It would be a repudiation of the judgement of the independent inquiry.
It would also be over-ruling the professional judgement from the government’s principal military adviser and the holder of a senior statutory office. Would Campbell go along with that, or would he feel he should consider his position?
One interesting bit of speculation is whether the Governor-General, David Hurley, a former chief of the defence force himself, might offer the prime minister some informal counsel along the way.