Responsibility is the glue that keeps a democratic system together, but the fundamental structures and institutions we rely upon for the governance of the nation have been so misused and abused that no one seems sure any longer what it is that we’re meant to be responsible for and loyal to - beyond the abstract concept of democracy itself.
While most Australians are still shaking their heads over antics recently witnessed in Federal Parliament, important issues have passed by unnoticed. Take for example, the case of Russell Vance, 55, a former Royal Australian Air Force wing commander who had his career destroyed by the Defence Department.
After a 15-year fight costing taxpayers $15 million, Defence has finally made a generous settlement (on May 15, 2009), but not a murmur has been heard in Federal Parliament. Nor has there been a whisper from Senator John Faulkner, the new minister concerned; nor a word of apology or explanation from Air Marshall Angus Houston, the Chief of the Defence Force or his predecessor, Peter Cosgrove. The latter is often vocal on matters of nation-building but silent on this.
Paul Daley from The Sun-Herald has followed Vance’s case closely over the years and is the only journalist to have covered the story of the settlement (Sun-Herald, “Defence loses $15m fight”, June 21). As often happens in Australia, one or more sharp journalists highlight things we should be taking seriously, but no one cares and the story dies - and not infrequently, someone with it.
Defence’s settlement is an admission of liability for Vance’s unfair dismissal and loss of career, a promising one, which was destroyed after a petty dispute involving subordinates. It has also paid his $1 million-plus legal bill. The Commonwealth requires its authorities to behave as model litigants but that’s hardly what Defence did in this case. After the ACT Supreme Court found that the Commonwealth should no longer defend Vance’s unfair dismissal, the Attorney-General’s Department - in an extraordinary intervention - had to step in to force closure of the issue.
As Daley explains in his article, Vance’s problems began in 1993 when he was posted to Butterworth, Malaysia, with orders to fix an RAAF base that was reputed to be a “holiday camp”. In the process of doing his job, Vance fell foul of his subordinates whose wives complained to a social worker about his management approach. When Vance sought details of these complaints under Freedom of Information, Defence ordered a military board of inquiry into his conduct.
The board sat in two continents for more than two years at a cost of $6 million. It was scrapped when Vance suffered a nervous breakdown under the pressure, but reconvened when a board member discovered that he was working part-time in Defence as part of his treatment. The RAAF actually sacked him a second time on the basis of his depression. Vance now designs and makes guitars for a living.
So there it is: a decent, highly trained and experienced Australian persecuted and yet no one’s responsible. Nor does Australia seem to care.
Readers might remember Allan Kessing, now in his early 60s, who was a member of the Customs Air Border Security Unit based at Sydney Airport. He was instrumental in compiling two reports, in 2003 and 2005, into major glitches in the security net at all major airports in Australia. This included surveillance blind spots and criminal activity inside those facilities, and all this such a short time after the 9-11 tragedies in the United States.
The reports were leaked in 2005 when no bureaucratic action was taken and were front-page news. As a result, then Prime Minister John Howard hired British international aviation security expert Sir John Wheeler to look into the claims. Wheeler confirmed the threats and vulnerabilities outlined in the reports and the federal government allocated more than $200 million to their rectification.
But as usual, a lethargic bureaucracy, mugged by reality, demanded a victim on whom to vent its spleen. Despite its rhetoric and responsibility, Canberra had been neither alert nor alarmed. Kessing was targeted, charged and duly convicted in 2007. He was given a nine-month suspended sentence and put on a good behaviour bond for two years.
Kessing has consistently denied leaking the reports - and rest assured, he is telling the truth - and currently has an appeal lodged with the High Court to have his case re-examined. The Australian, which ran the original story, has championed his case and the Media Alliance as well as one of News Limited’s senior executives, have helped defray Kessing’s legal expenses. Despite this, and despite the undisputed fact that the leaks were in the public interest, his life has been systematically trashed.