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Transcript of [opening statement] Senate additional estimates [hearing]: 18 February 2004: military justice inquiry.

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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate



Wednesday, 18 February 2004

E&oe____________________________________________________military justice inquiry

Senator Robert Hill

I don’t normally make an opening statement but I’d like to on this occasion. And I wanted to make a few comments concerning the Senate inquiry into military justice because I believe that a number of the same issues will be raised today.

I’ve said before that the military justice system must be rigorous, fair and accountable to the public - and that the Senate inquiry is part of that public accountability.

I recently told a Defence legal conference the Senate inquiry should be seen as part of that process. I said the Parliament has the right to assess whether the rules that relate to personal behaviour within the military and their application accord to contemporary expectations.

However, Mr Chairman, I am deeply concerned about the path the Committee appears to be taking.

Last week, the Committee decided to publish 15 of the submissions it had received - most focussing on the experiences of individual families. Whilst this is not an uncommon practice, this is an inquiry unlike most others undertaken by the Parliament.

The issues are highly emotive and extremely personal. Some of the accusations being levelled at individuals and institutions are of the worst kind - rape, bullying, neglect, incompetence.

Those that are based on substance and supported by evidence should certainly be treated with the utmost seriousness, rigorously tested by the Committee and the right lessons should be drawn from them.

But releasing submissions without testing the veracity of the information they contain fails to recognise the impact they will have on the men and women of the ADF.

The Committee, for example, agreed to publish a submission which claims that there have been anywhere between 10 and 100 victims of gang rape at ADFA and that the perpetrators of these crimes are still within the ranks of the ADF. The claim was completely unsubstantiated.

Even the author of the submission acknowledges his estimate is based solely on rumours he had heard almost 20 years ago. This of course would not be accepted in any court in this land. Yet in posting it on the website with the protection of Parliamentary privilege, the Committee has given these claims - and others in the


same submission - wide public exposure and an unjustified degree of implied credibility. The media went into a feeding frenzy with the opportunity.

In fact, Mr Chairman, there have been no reported allegations I am advised of gang rapes in the 18 years of its existence. And rape of course is not an issue of military justice. Rape prosecutions occur in civil courts. Rapists are prosecuted by civil police and presented before civil judges. The result has been a slur against all the men and women in the ADF whose integrity has now been put in question on the basis of rumour and untested speculation.

Mr Chairman, a number of the released submissions are from family members still struggling to cope with the tragic loss of a loved one through suicide. Their emotions are still raw and their grief understandable. This Committee needs to be mindful of the extraordinarily sensitive environment in which it’s operating.

The very tragic issue of a small number of suicides in the ADF should not cast a long shadow over all who serve.

Any suicide is a tragedy, and the families of ADF members who suicide should certainly be given prompt and honest answers to the questions they will inevitably ask.

Where failures in the military justice system have contributed to a suicide those who have failed should be brought to account. Where it’s evident that the system can be improved it should be improved. But we should also put the issue in context.

The bigger picture is that military service and training is by its very nature physically and mentally demanding. Personnel need to be trained for the prospect of war fighting and how to protect themselves in the most extreme circumstances. This is not a benign environment. It’s stressful. And of course, all of this very often is taking place a long way from home.

The ADF leadership acknowledges the challenges it poses for young people. The ADF has moved with the times, changing its training practices and built up its support mechanisms. If more can be done, should be done and General Cosgrove can attest to this.

Again however, the context is important. It must be acknowledged that the suicide of young people is not a problem that is unique to the ADF - it’s a considerable problem in the wider Australian community. The issue as it affects the ADF should be seen, and in part measured, in that context.

Mr Chairman, individuals and families have the right to air their stories and to have the military justice system scrutinised to ensure that it is fair and just. The ADF should not be immune from criticism, but such shortcomings should follow thorough and objective process.

What I want to underline is the paramount importance of fair and just treatment for all those involved in the inquiry. For those individuals and families who give evidence, for the ADF members who try ensure the equitable and effective dispensation of military justice, and for all the other men and women of the ADF who do not deserve to be maligned by unsubstantiated claims such as those made about ADFA. Thank you.

Senator Sandy Macdonald:

Thank you Minister. As Chair of the Legislation Committee I appreciate your comments and will - and the committee will note your comments because it is - these are matters which are more directly - are more directed towards the


References Committee. This is the Legislation Committee as you’re aware and the References Committee is comprised of different Senators so I think the appropriate way to handle your opening statement, as I said I appreciate them but that it’s a case of this committee noting your comments and moving on.

Senator Alan Ferguson:

Mr Chair, I think you could also make sure that the Minister’s statement is circulated to all those members of the Committee now that it’s been made.

Senator Macdonald:

Yes thank you Senator Ferguson.

Senator Chris Evans:

Well could I just say, Mr Chairman, it seems to me - I have no problems with what the Minister says but I think it is appropriate as a submission to the Committee inquiring into military justice. And if the Minister wants to make that submission then he’d want to make that. I understood General Cosgrove was going to be making an opening submission to the first day of that inquiry on the 1st of March, putting the ADF view. I think he’s going to be a witness so if the Minister wants to make the submission or wants to make that available to the Committee that’s obviously something they’d take seriously.

Senator Hill:

Well if I might say, Mr Chairman, the problem with that is that’s all very well but the committee has already taken pre-emptive action to colour the environment. And that’s my concern. And as I understand it …

Senator Evans:

Well with respect that’s not right. That’s not right.

Senator Hill:

…and as I understand it.

Senator Evans:

That’s a slur on the Committee. That’s not right …

Senator Hill:

No, well …

Senator Evans:

What they did was they published the submissions.

Senator Hill:

No. I’m part of this Senate also and I’ve been here for 23 years. And the Parliament has a responsibility to people as well. And my concern of course is in part, Mr Chairman, that I understand the Committee is planning to release further submissions without having them first tested. Now if this is going to be a drip feed to - for some purpose to suit Senator Evan’s inquiry as sort of evidenced by the press release that he put out in conjunction with the release of those submissions then I think it’s very unfortunate.

Senator Macdonald:

Well thank you Minister I ...

Senator Evans:


Well I just want to responding Mr Chairman. I think that’s a slur on the Committee. I’m happy if the Minister wants to have a go at me - that’s his business but there’s no drip feed. What the committee did was release submissions in accordance with common practice.

Now there is an issue which I concede about those submissions. I don’t know how one goes about testing or vetting submissions and deciding which you release and which you don’t because then you run into difficulties about accusations of censorship etcetera. But I do accept the general point that that in highly emotive area submissions may well make claims which can’t be substantiated or may not be substantiated. I’d be interested in having a debate with the Minister and the Chief about how we go about dealing with those issues in the inquiry. I am very sensitive to that. I’m not sure what the answer is. I’d appreciate any constructive advice but as to the suggestion we’re going to vet submissions and decide which ones we’ll make public and which we won’t I’m interested in how we justify that. And how we test submissions before releasing them and how you have that testing process without actually having them as a document with which people can debate.

But I do object to the suggestion that there’s a drip feed or that there’s any process adopted by the Committee other than has normally been adopted. It was carried unanimously to release the resolutions. There was no argument put that they shouldn’t be released. It was in accordance with normal Senate practice. If the Minister wants to make a submission about that we’d obviously have a look at those issues but I think there are a range of difficulties about how we do that. But that’s obviously something the Committee would have to consider at the time and see if there’s a way through with those problems.

Senator Alan Ferguson:

Chair, can I just say that I’d disagree with Senator Evans as to what is normal Senate practice because the Senate References Committees that I have chaired in the past, it has quite often been the case that submissions are not released until after a public hearing so they don’t become a matter of public comment before there is an opportunity to question those people involved. And on a number of Committees I’ve been on submissions to an inquiry are not made public until after the public hearing is held.

Senator Macdonald:

Well I don’t know whether we can take this debate any further at this point. Minister your comments are prudent and noted and they’ll be circulated to the References Committee and they’re now on the public record so I think the purpose of your opening statement has been served.

We move to the portfolio overview.