SUBJECTS: IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry

LEON DELANEY, HOST: Shadow Minister for Defence and Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles, good afternoon.


DELANEY: Very well, thanks. Thanks for joining us today. And this is obviously a very, as the Prime Minister indicated, it would be a very difficult day for Australians. But it’s important that we face up to this isn’t it?

MARLES: Well, it’s really important that we face up to it and it is a very difficult day for our Defence Forces, for those who have served in them and really for the, for the nation as a whole. And the allegations which are contained in the report of Major General Brereton are appalling, there’s no other word for it. And they leave all of us who really value the remarkable place that the ADF has within our culture, within our history with a very heavy heart. But we should in the midst of it, pause for a moment and just acknowledge that, the bravery of those who are able to call out a wrong amongst their own ranks, which is an incredible act of bravery, which has led to this being uncovered, the fact that this has been investigated, reported upon, that there will be further investigations to come and processes after that. All of that is by global standards, very unusual. It says that we as a country are actually able to acknowledge and face up and deal with our mistakes. That ought to give us some sense of heart and confidence about the fact that we can get past this and that the leadership of our Defence Force can restore integrity to our Defence Forces.

DELANEY: Well, that point brings me to the question about David McBride, who was the whistle-blower who was largely responsible for getting this into the public arena in the first place. There are calls now, quite loud calls now, for the prosecution that he is currently facing for revealing secrets basically, that prosecution should be dropped. But so far, there’s no sign that the government or the prosecutors are considering that.

MARLES: Well, the only way I can answer that is really in the same way that General Campbell answered that precise question this morning during his press conference, which was on the one hand to say, because it is in front of the courts, we’re not in a position to speak specifically about it. But what can be said is that those who did show the courage to call this out, to speak about the wrongs that they saw within their own ranks have displayed  extraordinary courage, and part of the reason for that is because of the, precisely because of the culture, which is described in the Brereton report, which sought to prevent people from speaking out about these appalling, alleged appalling acts. And we need to realise that, as a nation, we owe those people an incredible debt of gratitude. If this had not been called out, if we were not uncovering this now and dealing with it in the way that we were, you know, really there would be a long-term entrenched problem, serious problem within our Defence Forces. As it is, you know, we have a stain, we have an appalling set of circumstances which are detailed in this report, but it’s also clear that as a nation and as a Defence Force, it is being dealt with, and that’s really important.

DELANEY:  Rex Patrick, the Senator said persecution of whistle-blowers is not in the public interest. Mr McBride is a hero, leaving Mr McBride aside for the moment, just as a general principle, doesn’t there need to be better protection for legitimate whistle-blowers in order not to discourage people in the future from doing the right thing?

MARLES: I think that’s fair, I think it’s really important that we are protecting whistle-blowers who often act in a way where enormous courage is showed where they are standing often one out against you know, an institutional culture and, but for their actions, wrong continues to be perpetrated. And that’s what we see here and I absolutely think that for those who have had the moral courage to stand up in this moment, we are owing them an incredible debt of gratitude, and you know, I really would want to in that context, acknowledge Major General Jeff Sengelman, whose own moral courage in this and allowing this to, or enabling this to get going, was extraordinary.

DELANEY: There’s been a lot said about culture and specifically toxic culture, particularly in the Special Operations Unit. It’s important that the right culture is cultivated, but once the wrong culture is embedded, that’s very difficult to weed out, isn’t it? What’s the way forward from here?

MARLES: Yeah, there needs to be a complete overhaul and resetting of that culture. That observation Leon is exactly right. And one of the things that had become very apparent to me in in my time as Shadow Minister of Defence, where I’ve really had the great privilege of being able to spend a lot of time with members of our Defence Force, is that the Defence Force works very hard on its culture and the culture is really important in terms of establishing the professionalism and the values that those who do the very special act of wearing our nation’s uniform operate. I think what comes out in the report is that, you know, there’s a kind of a, there’s a deviation from the culture is the way in which is described, which obviously was, you know, very toxic. There was also a lack of curiosity, as it’s been described in the report on the part of Command to understand what was going on within the ranks to stop this from going further. So I think from both points of view, in terms of how this was able to take off, but also how Command can have a sense of it going forward, the report is, you know, well it is searingly honest, and it is very detailed in the recommendations that it makes. And so what’s really important, and I know the government will do this, but it is really important that all the recommendations of this report are fully acted on and I do know that you can see you the weight on General Campbell today, when he did his press conference. He’s a person of enormous integrity and capacity, you know, that he is going to make sure that all of this is fully implemented.

DELANEY: When we talk about the chain of command, and it’s been pointed out that the cover up was at a lower level of the chain of command. But you’re what you’re saying is that people further up the chain of command, maybe should have been more enquiring or at least more aware of what was taking place on their watch, how can that be improved?

MARLES: Well, really, that’s what the report itself talks about is the curiosity about what is happening within your organisation, within your unit, is an integral part of commanding. And it goes hand in hand with leadership. And the report speaks extensively about that. I mean, it is important to acknowledge that this report, which as I said, was searingly honest, didn’t pull any punches, did make clear that a higher up the chain of command, there simply wasn’t knowledge of what was going on. I think we need to accept that finding. You know, that said, again, when I was listening to General Campbell speak today, our Chief of Defence Force who was a Commander in our Middle East operations, during that period of time you feel the weight that is on his shoulders, the sense that he said that for a generation, this is going to be an issue, which is in their conscience about what it was that they walked past, what it is that they didn’t see. And I think all of them will be thinking very much about how those issues or that side of leadership can be improved going forward. But, you know, I do take enormous confidence from who is guiding this process now. And the very fact that this is happening, which is globally extremely unusual, ought to give us a sense of confidence about the moral underpinning of our Defence Force – actually the moral underpinning of our nation, there is some pride that we can take in that.

DELANEY: One of the things that will come out of this apparently is the Second Squadron SAS will be struck off. Now what will happen is, there’ll be a new unit created with a different name. But what does that really mean? Does just rebranding something really fix the problem?

MARLES: No, I think, again, as I was listening to General Campbell on that this morning, I think that’s actually in the context of how the military operates, it’s a pretty significant step. I mean, as the General said, what that will mean is that, forever, there is a permanency in the record of our Defence Force and of our nation about what has happened here and the seriousness of it. And that it led to that.  As, General Campbell said, for a whole lot of people, this is going to be an extremely bitter pill to swallow. So, I wouldn’t underestimate the significance of that step at all. I think that is a hugely significant step to take and it does demonstrate the seriousness with which this is being taken. I mean, those who serve in our military, take all of that very seriously and so that particular measure is going to have a very big impact, as is the revocation that is recommended and is now being acted upon in the report of the Unit Citation in respect of this. I mean, for those who have been involved, these are very, very big steps to take indeed and, and it will, I think, have a very big impact on making sure that the way in which our Defence Forces operate, and particularly in the Special Forces, are very different in the future to what they have been in this period.

DELANEY: All of the attention has been on the SAS and the Commando Regiment, but they were the forces deployed. Is there any possibility that there are other problems elsewhere in the ADF that we just haven’t discovered yet?

MARLES: That’s a really fair question and it’s one, you know, we’ve asked as well, I think it’s important to understand that in this inquiry, there was an openness to seeking information about other events that might have occurred beyond the Special Forces, but none came forward. So I think, given the thoroughness of this report, and it is extremely thorough, I mean this is a hundreds of pages report, which goes into every, you know, possible issue in really excruciating detail. I think we can, therefore take confidence that it has captured what has occurred here, and it does appear to be confined to the Special Forces. And in that respect, only a part of the Special Forces. And I think this is the other point I’d want to make Leon, it would be a tragedy if Australia now saw our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan solely through the prism of these allegations. The truth is that thousands of Australians have served in Afghanistan with distinction and the role that they’ve played there has been fantastic. Our involvement in Afghanistan has been extremely important in terms of our history. We went there in the early 2000s, to deny Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism. We should never forget that Australians lost their lives on September 11, that the organisation that perpetrated the Bali bombings utilised training camps in Afghanistan, and that mission was basically complete, well that mission was completed. And from there, you know, our involvement in Afghanistan was about being one of those countries which is willing to help when another country seeks assistance as Afghanistan has. And our soldiers have done an exemplary job in doing that. And we should be proud of what they’ve done. They should be proud of what they’ve done and they deserve our continuing thanks and gratitude, and they have it. The allegations in respect of a few do not detract from the sacrifice of the many and it’s really important that we are remembering that today as well.

DELANEY: Indeed, obviously, you know, we talk about the reasons for going to Afghanistan in the first place and I certainly understand the argument for being a part of that action in the days after September 11. But, you know, Iraq was a less convincing argument. But having done that, why were we there so long? Why was it necessary to drag this out for a very, very long period of time? I’ve heard criticisms that governments of both persuasions over the years have committed strategic errors in the political decisions that were made here. And that, in particular, they were wrong to keep sending the same units back into action time and time again.

MARLES: Well I think there is a few things in that. I mean, the report does raise the question and make the observation that the Special Forces have been overused. I think there does need to be an examination of how the Special Forces are used. They are a really important national asset. You know, they are kind of at the tip of the spear and were very much at the front line. And I think, looking at going forward about the appropriate frequency of use of the Special Forces is one of the learnings which is going to come out of this whole episode. In terms of Australia’s participation in Afghanistan over the journey, and we have some contributions there today, it was about denying Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism. But beyond that, Afghanistan then was a country which was in a dire situation. Now, you know, we see around the world from time to time countries put their hand up and ask for assistance. We’ve seen that in Afghanistan. We see that today in Iraq. We’ve seen it in the Solomon Islands in closer to home, we saw it with East Timor. Australia should be one of those group of countries which responds when a country asks for assistance. Now we can have a debate about what is the appropriate level of that response, what’s the appropriate level of that contribution. I think by and large over the journey that has been calibrated about right in terms of the level of contribution we’ve made, but as to the question of whether we should be there, we should be there. Like we should be one of those countries which helps. That is who we are as a nation and who we are as a people. And I’ve had the honour of campaigning for Australia to be on the UN Security Council. It’s a matter of enormous pride and acknowledgement around the world, that we are one of the few countries who are willing to help when people ask for it. And so, I don’t have any doubts about the correctness of us being there. And therefore about, you know, the significance of it and of course, anybody who is asked to serve by our government, wearing our nation’s uniform engages in an act of sacrifice, which requires the thanks of our country and in this case, you know, they have done enormous good in Afghanistan, and we should remember that.

DELANEY: Richard Marles, thanks very much for your time today.

MARLES: Appreciate it, Leon.

DELANEY: Thank you very much.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.
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