By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has overruled proposed Australian Defence Force (ADF) reforms that would have removed the ability of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) to select who gets to serve in its “elite” ranks, despite the cloud hanging over the SASR since the release of Paul Brereton’s damning report into alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan – principally by SASR members.
As reported by The Australian’s defence correspondent, Ben Packham, the proposed reform – a direct response to the Brereton report – would have merged the selection courses for the Perth-based SASR and the Sydney-based 2nd Commando Regiment from next year.
The proposal for a joint selection course, aimed at addressing the “intense tribalism” and “toxic rivalry” between the units identified by Brereton and supported by Chief of Army Rick Burr and Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell, was bitterly opposed by SASR veterans, including Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, a former SASR captain.
It is not the first time that Dutton has overruled reforms stemming from Brereton’s four-year inquiry. In April, Dutton reversed Campbell’s decision to strip meritorious unit citations from 3000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 as a “collective punishment” for alleged war crimes.
Scott Morrison’s initial posturing on the Brereton report was that given the gravity of the findings the response needed to be a military one, not political.
Morrison, the model of propriety, declared at the time: "We haven't seen, nor do we wish to have provided to us, the detailed [unredacted] report…That, we think, would compromise the process. That is something for the ADF to address internally."
Which is why in November last year it was Campbell, not Morrison, who released the redacted report and fronted a media conference to promise that the 143 recommendations of Brereton’s report would be followed to the letter, so damning and compelling was his report.
Campbell, visibly shaken and angry at that Canberra press conference, described the alleged conduct uncovered by Brereton as “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling”.
Front and centre was the issue of culture.
“The report finds that some Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia fostered within the SAS what Justice Brereton terms a self-centred warrior culture, a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service,” Campbell said.
“What also emerged was a toxic competitiveness between the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment.”
Morrison publicly humiliated Campbell
Campbell accepted and promised to proceed with a recommendation from the Brereton report to write to the Governor-General requesting that he revoke the meritorious unit citation for the Special Operations Task Groups that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. But Morrison was not true to his word.
Sensitive to criticism that 3000 soldiers were being punished for the misdeeds of a few – and conveniently overlooking that a unit citation is by definition all or nothing – Morrison did what he said he would not do: politicise the response to the Brereton report, in the process publicly humiliating the Chief of the Defence Force by overruling him.
And just in case Campbell was of a mind to assert his authority and approach the Governor-General anyway, Morrison issued this unambiguous threat: "Governors-General take advice from their prime ministers." Dutton’s predecessor as Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, meekly endorsed Morrison’s intervention, despite earlier supporting Campbell’s decision to accept Brereton’s recommendation, and joined with Morrison in shoving Campbell under the nearest military transport vehicle.
In April, Dutton gave force to Morrison’s earlier intervention and announced that the meritorious unit citation would not be revoked.
"My judgment was that we shouldn't be punishing the 99% for the sins of one per cent," Dutton explained.
This was a spurious argument.
As Chief of Army Burr observed when supporting Campbell’s decision to adopt the Brereton recommendation, “if we knew then what we know now, the unit would not have been put forward for a meritorious citation".
Peter Dutton is the Defence Minister’s Defence Minister. The Defence Minister from central casting. One might even say he is the General George Patton of Australian defence ministers, to whom he eerily bears not a little resemblance. And we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the take-no-prisoners Dutton would relish the legendary general’s moniker of “Old Blood and Guts”.
Dutton is determined to demonstrate that he is not a captive of his department nor in the thrall of his military brass. As he would have it, his first loyalty is to the serving men and women of the ADF.
It was in this vein that in May Dutton issued a directive that events such as staff wearing “rainbow clothing” to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia must cease.
‘We are not pursuing a woke agenda’
“I’ve been very clear to the chiefs that I will not tolerate discrimination. But we are not pursuing a woke agenda,” Dutton told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Our task is to build up the morale in the Australian Defence Force and these woke agendas don’t help.”
Most ministers, whatever their personal views, would look the other way in the face of such workplace observances, but not Old Blood and Guts. As a minister, when Dutton runs a department, he absolutely runs it. And as the Defence Minister he is single-minded in what his department’s priorities should be and woke morning teas don’t come close.
Unlike the fickle Morrison, whose every move is guided by the day’s headlines, and anticipation of the morrow’s, Dutton, for good or ill, is a conviction politician.
That may be an admirable trait in a Defence Minister, but it doesn’t mean that Dutton’s halo of certainty delivers the soundest judgements.
Which takes us back to Dutton’s decision to reignite, as The Australian’s Ben Packham colourfully phrases it, the “beret wars” between the SASR and the 2nd Commando Regiment.
The elitism of the SASR – in both its literal and pejorative meanings – has been a concern in sections of the ADF long before the Brereton inquiry but those longstanding concerns came home to roost in the most damning circumstances.
In 2016, Paul Brereton, a judge of the Supreme Court of NSW and a Major-General in the Australian Army Reserve, was appointed to head an inquiry by the Inspector-General of the ADF into possible war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Brereton investigated 57 incidents of alleged misconduct by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and found there to be “credible information” to substantiate the alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan prisoners, detainees and civilians – all non-combatants. Nineteen Australian special forces personnel, predominantly from the SASR, will be investigated for the alleged murders.
Brereton was scathing of a “self-centred warrior culture” that informed the alleged war crimes.
But the politicisation of the Brereton report throws serious doubt on whether necessary reforms will ever take place.
Campbell was initially, albeit very briefly, given every assurance that he had a free hand to implement the recommendations of the Brereton report and to undertake the necessary reforms that would lead to cleaning up the toxic cultures that led to this darkest chapter of Australian military conduct in a theatre of war.
Worst fears realised
For sceptical observers of an Australian military establishment which has historically talked big on reform while delivering very little in reality, the fear was always that the root-and-branch cultural and institutional changes that have been promised would come to nought. Those fears look like being realised, but in this case it’s the government not the ADF leadership which has been found wanting.
The Brereton report – exhaustive, forensic and beyond reproach – leaves no doubt that extensive change needs to occur in the ADF, and in particular in its special forces. The real risk is that the cultural and systemic shortcomings unflinchingly exposed by Brereton will simply go into hibernation to rise another day on another faraway battlefield.
The Morrison government simply lacks the moral fibre and political will to ensure that real change can occur. When the politics of revoking the meritorious unit citation for Special Operations Task Groups threatened to upset Morrison’s focus groups he unblinkingly nobbled Angus Campbell.
A political leader worth his salt could have explained that revoking the citation was not a rebuff to the overwhelming majority of soldiers who did the right thing. It was also open to the government to delay – rather than overturn – a decision pending ongoing reform processes and deliberations within the ADF in the wake of the Brereton report. Would it really be so difficult to sell the need for a cautious response in light of Brereton’s damning report?
Dutton has likewise compromised the ADF’s response to the Brereton inquiry. While he has not acted with Morrison’s craven aversion to political heat, Dutton is clearly more interested in preserving the status quo than providing the ADF’s leadership with the support to achieve real reform.
Dutton may have his adoring troops cheering on the sidelines for staring down his defence chiefs but at what cost?
Scott Morrison has argued that if Australia cannot emerge from Covid lockdowns when we reach a vaccination rate of 80%, then when? It might also be argued that if Australia’s special forces are not ripe for reform when an inquiry has uncovered the alleged murder of 39 Afghan non-combatants, then when?
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.