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Department of Defence: less than honest, less than decent

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 19 December 2011


Over the past 15 years there has been a trend toward lessened accountability on the part of federal government departments and agencies. Left to their own devices, government departments will naturally seek to avoid scrutiny by their political masters, the press and the public. And they have increasingly been left to their own devices.

In order to achieve this they have had to embrace the broad terms of the Government's agenda. This has not been difficult.

Refugees, terrorism, defence, trade, tourism, water and infrastructure reform, education and believe it or not, despite the histrionics from Tony Abbott, climate change, the mining tax and the carbon tax. Were Abbott to go, it would stay... it will probably stay anyway.

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There are no significant differences between the major parties, a few concocted issues like the poker machine tax, but nothing at the core, nothing of substance. The right for ascendancy in Australian politics is being fought, as Abbott well understands, on the basis of personalities. A game that Howard excelled at, seeing off Simon Crean, Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

To the long-term and cynical public servant, these personality competitions are largely irrelevant within the context of the current political climate. The prevailing political consensus ensures a broad framework within which to conduct government business. The effect of this is that there is limited political oversight of the AFP and ASIO. No one questions, or indeed is in a position to question, the competence and judgements of the Director General of ASIO.

The Department of Immigration can run what amounts to concentration camps without proper scrutiny. Both major parties agree with the unconscionable cruelty associated with mandatory detention. Yet, fear of being swamped by boats prevails. As Leunig picked years ago, we are a nation of control freaks.

However, it is the Department of Defence that deserves our closest scrutiny. Compared to other departments it has a huge budget, a culture amongst uniformed employees, which is different to that prevailing in the general community and one, which is fostered by them. The intent is to create a mystique that frustrates attempts at accountability by the uninitiated. Of course in the face of tough-minded common sense it falls apart, but little of that exists in the Parliament.

Within Defence there has developed a strong sense of entitlement amongst senior officers. Within the structure includes the belief that the lower ranks are there to support and enhance their ambition. With the growth in the notion of entitlement has come a corresponding collapse in moral fibre.

The notion of serving for the national good has slipped down the rung of motivating factors, not necessarily for the rankers but certainly for many of the cynical and senior commanders. How else can the poor state of naval preparedness be explained? How else to explain the ad hoc air force acquisitions? And how else can our continued presence in Afghanistan be explained?

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A majority of Australians have seen through the involvement; it is not in Australia's national interest. Yet, senior defence officers continue to argue for it. Why? Many see it as a useful training ground for Australian forces. Exercises also take a toll in terms of the killed and wounded. During Barra Winga, the first of the major exercises preparing Australian troops for Vietnam, five soldiers were killed over a three-month period.

The rotation through Afghanistan provides promotion opportunities and combat experience of a superior nature to the experience any exercise could create. The diggers get extra pay and allowances, helping many to get a start in life or assisting with the financial needs of expanding families. Combat and service awards enhance service and civilian status.

Australia is a democracy but the Department of Defence has slipped out of our grasp, it has removed itself from the mainstream, it is separate from the rest of us. It wants the war in Afghanistan, but it has got it at huge cost to what used to be the special relationship between the armed forces and the civilian population. We used to laud our heroes. But in the name of the war on terror, as part of reinforcing a separate mystique and culture, it will not name recipients of bravery awards for reasons, it says, of security.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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