Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have put the Chief of Army, Rick Burr, and Chief of the Defence Forces, Angus Campbell, in an intolerable position.
Both officers have fine service records and have shown great leadership in negotiating a series of complex and confronting issues.
Yet they are constantly over-ruled by the PM and the Defence Minister, not for any mistakes, but to accommodate the political views of two unprincipled politicians.
The British used to talk about people being Officers and Gentlemen – not in the sense of a Richard Gere movie – but to reflect a professional culture based on a sense of honour. It denoted a code of conduct based on doing what was ‘right’, or morally correct, and of acting in the interests of the institution rather than of the individual. There was also an element of class there – although this began to break down from the 20th century when mass armies had to be raised for war.
The culture is fundamental to sound and reliable performance in an institution that is frequently placed in situations of ambiguity and danger, particularly where the actions of comparatively junior officers often have a strategic importance well beyond the immediate situation.
It has survived for centuries even allowing for numerous lapses in honourable and gentlemanly behaviour such as the Amritsar massacre and the response to the 1857-59 Indian Rebellion (the British persist in calling it a munity) which included rebels being strapped to artillery pieces and blown to pieces.
The sense of honour and service was inherited by the Australian Army. Indeed, Australian troops and their leaders have generally had a fine reputation, even if with some blots.
Nevertheless, a number of problems have emerged recently. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that these primarily involve operations conducted alongside US troops in Afghanistan.
Prime amongst these are the alleged crimes raised by the Brereton inquiry. In November last year General Campbell released the redacted Brereton Report and promised that all its 143 recommendations would be implemented.
“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.”
But Campbell’s plan to implement the recommendations to fix the “toxic competitiveness” was over-ruled by Defence Minister Peter Dutton, as was a further Brereton recommendation to strip meritorious unit citations from 3000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
Chief of Army Burr supported Campbell’s decision to adopt the Brereton recommendations saying: “if we knew then what we know now, the unit would not have been put forward for a meritorious citation”.
As Dutton comes from an organisation, Queensland Police, which was once notorious for systemic corruption and other crimes, he ought to be well aware that the only way that dishonourable or corrupt behaviour can be dealt with is by root and branch reform, including dismissals and some jail sentences. But apparently not.
Morrison as usual spent his time thinking of the right words and how to avoid any political questions. As Australian Veterans News Editor-at-Large, Leo D’Angelo Fisher, said: “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.”
Naturally, that was just more words from Morrison and he and his government quickly proceeded to start interfering.
As D’Angelo Fisher wrote: “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’.”
Peter Dutton is just as interventionist waging war on “wokeness” and interfering in the day-to-day military training and operations thereby totally upending the chain of command.
“I’ve been very clear to the Chiefs that I will not tolerate discrimination. But we are not pursuing a woke agenda,” he 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.”
Which gets back to the position in which Campbell and Burr find themselves. On the one hand, a sense of personal honour and professional integrity would be telling them to resign. On the other hand, a sense of obligation towards their troops would be telling them to stick around to protect them as much as possible from interfering politicians.
In the US General Mark Milley was in a similar – if far more serious and worrying – position to Burr and Campbell.
The Australian situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are currently more ex-military Members of Parliament than at any time since the post-WWII period. A lot of them are as gung ho in their politics as in their approach to military matters.
They, and some supporters in the military, reacted in a similar way when Lieutenant General David Morrison called out sexism in the Army when he was Chief of the Army. They saw “morale” as being more important than principled conduct and wanted the military to backpedal on issues of sexual harassment.
In a foreword to Nick Jans’ book Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army, Morrison recounted an incident from when he was a junior officer and had let his unit down. His sergeant cornered him with the firm admonition that Morrison needed to realise was “that you are the legacy of all who have served before you – thousands of men and women who put service before self….What you are not asking yourself is about the legacy you are going to leave.”
Sadly – as they demonstrate time and time again – such ethical dilemmas about honourable behaviour and what is the right approach to wicked problems and the legacy they will leave never concern Morrison or Dutton. For them, it’s all about the politics of the moment and the tactics used to negotiate them. It remains to be seen what the consequences of that will be in terms of professional standards in the military.