RAY HADLEY: Andrew Hastie is the Assistant Defence Minister federally and a former SAS captain. There’s news breaking today, the leadership of the SAS is being elevated to ensure sufficient capacity and appropriate oversight. The Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, says the changes will improve the regiment’s accountability as it braces for more complex missions. In November, the Brereton report recommended special force soldiers be investigated for the murder of Afghan prisoners and civilians – and this comes from the ABC website. Why am I not surprised? Australia’s most elite military unit is being overhauled, with a more senior officer to soon command the Perth-based SAS to prepare for a “challenging decade” ahead. The Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie is on the line. Minister, good morning to you.
THE HON. ANDREW HASTIE MP, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning to you, Ray, and your listeners.
RAY HADLEY: Is this a vote of confidence in the SAS or are they being undermined?
ANDREW HASTIE: This is a vote of confidence. I went to the SAS yesterday on behalf of the Minister, the Chief of Army beamed in from Canberra, and the message from the Government and the senior leadership of Defence was - we have confidence in you, and this is a positive reform to set you up for the challenges ahead. With the closure of the - sorry, you go on.
RAY HADLEY: Sorry, you go ahead. I interrupted you, go ahead.
ANDREW HASTIE: With the end of the war in Afghanistan, we now need our special operations personnel focused on the near region, the Indo–Pacific region because that’s where the challenges lie for our country in the years ahead.
RAY HADLEY: And is the ADF Chief Angus Campbell on the same page as you and the Minister?
ANDREW HASTIE: Yes, no daylight.
RAY HADLEY: No, daylight. He wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming to this position?
ANDREW HASTIE: Look, this is an important reform, and it needs institutional support for it to last, so this is Government and Defence working together. Ray, since 1964 – and I should note this weekend it’s the SAS Regiment’s birthday, 57th birthday. The Regiment was raised in 1964. It’s been to Vietnam, it’s been to East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, a lot has changed, but one thing that hasn’t kept up is the command and control arrangements. And so, elevating the commanding officer from a half colonel to a full colonel recognises the complex missions that the SAS has to undertake, and it’ll mean that we will have a more senior, more experienced officer in charge of the whole enterprise, which is a positive for government and the Australian people.
RAY HADLEY: Would that be an officer who has a background with the SAS, or would that officer be coming – seconded from some other area of the Defence Force?
ANDREW HASTIE: No, this is a unit command position. Therefore, if you’re a member of the Regiment, you come in as an officer, as a captain, you serve as a major, a half colonel and then, of course, the commanding officer will be a full colonel.
RAY HADLEY: So, when they refer to a lieutenant colonel, that’s what you’d call and I’d call – not you, but what I’d call a half colonel; is that correct?
ANDREW HASTIE: That’s a right, a lieutenant colonel, half colonel, 05 position. So, it’s going from an 05 position to an 06 position. And look, what it does is it means that the commanding officer spends, potentially, some time with agency partners in a coalition environment, a bit more time in Canberra, building a network. Because as you would know, Ray, the SAS is geographically dislocated from the rest of the country by virtue of the time difference, and we need someone senior who’s got a good rolodex because, of course, the SAS works in a whole-of-government space and having a colonel in charge of the SAS will mean that there will be more accountability, more experience and better outcomes for us as a country.
RAY HADLEY: And you said you addressed the troops about this and they’re welcoming of this elevation of their commander?
ANDREW HASTIE: Absolutely. For them, it’s been a tough year. There’s been a lot of talk in the media, some of it valid, some of it slanderous. We saw that very offensive tweet last year on Twitter [by Chinese Communist Party official Lijian Zhao], and a lot of the chatter has been politicised. So, the time for idle talk has come to an end, and the Minister wanted to send a message direct to the men and women of the Special Air Service Regiment that we are moving forward, and we need them to be ready for the next conflict and this is really important reform that will help them to do so.
RAY HADLEY: Just if you can help me, there was a story written by Charles Miranda, and I was trying to understand the flag-folding ceremony that was to be held this coming week. I just don’t understand the significance of that or what it means. Can you just in simple layman terms explain to me what the story was about?
ANDREW HASTIE: Look, there was chatter in the media about a ceremony that would take place on Friday. That’s not happening - the ceremony. The announcement yesterday, it was a positive announcement it was about moving the regiment forward. So, you know, there’s been all sorts of chatter. Today is a day where we’re celebrating sort of a new dawn for the SAS, and can I tell you what, the ladies and gentlemen of the SAS are very focused on their task, and I sensed a rise in morale.
RAY HADLEY: Okay. Well, so, this flag-folding ceremony was to be held on Friday according to the report by Charles for the 2nd “Sabre” squadron, to symbolically disband the unit and pass the flag to the Historical Foundation. It won’t be happening?
ANDREW HASTIE: Correct.
RAY HADLEY: Okay. Did that come from the Defence Force Chief or from the Minister?
ANDREW HASTIE: Look, there are a number of reasons, COVID being one of them, but, essentially, it’s not happening. And the news yesterday as you know, C2 reform, command and control reform, it’s a positive one. The Chief of Army was present. He spoke, I thought his remarks were very well received he thanked particularly the families of SAS members because they do carry a big burden, and he finished his remarks with a “who dares wins” because, as you would know, he was a troop commander, a squadron commander, a commanding officer of SASR and he loves the regiment and we’re working together to get it ready for the challenges ahead.
RAY HADLEY: Well, I’d say he’s got a strange way of showing love, but what I’ve said – and you may be aware or not aware of my comments, the attack on these 13 individuals. We had 17 individuals handed show cause notices; four have been advised that admin action has been finalised, no further admin action will be taken. The remaining 13 individuals have either separated or will separate soon from the ADF and Army and it ceased admin action on those issues. In other words, and tell me if I’m wrong, because you’re a former member of the SAS, there’s no investigation going forward. The ADF Chief said there was no hope of any prosecution or any administrative action against any of these men and, as a result, Peter Dutton on my program last Thursday apologised for what these men and their families have been put through and I guess as Assistant Defence Minister and a former member of the SAS, you’d support that view. But why am I reading stuff since then to say I’m ill-informed, I don’t know what I’m talking about, there are still things that are still to be done and they haven’t wiped the slate clean? What do I miss about all this? Is there something I don’t know?
ANDREW HASTIE: Look, Ray, as you would know, I served overseas with the SAS on the Special Operations Task group myself. I was involved with the Brereton inquiry myself. This whole process is at arm’s length from Government, but also from me, for good reason. And the Office of Special Investigator has been set up. The Army has its own administrative processes. You’ve just outlined your understanding of it. The Minister is in the best position to talk directly to it, because obviously he doesn’t have an interest in it like I do. You understand, Ray, my position.
RAY HADLEY: I do. I do. But all I’m saying to you, Andrew, is this and I’m not trying to be provocative, is there something I’ve missed here? It appears to me, as a layman, without the same level of interest as you as a former member, it appears to me these people have been cleared. Is there something I’m not getting? Is that my understanding? Is my understanding correct or not?
ANDREW HASTIE: My understanding is that there is a process ongoing led through the Office of Special Investigator. The Army has its own internal processes and, as I understand it, their processes are complete or near completion, but there is still an active investigation through the Office of Special Investigator, which is completely at arm’s length from Government and I’m not privy to.
RAY HADLEY: Okay. So, they haven’t been cleared?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, Ray –
RAY HADLEY: I know I’m putting you in a difficult position, but all I want to know is: are they cleared or not cleared? You seem to have indicated there that there’s some ongoing inquiry that we haven’t been made aware of because if the Defence Force Chief, using my language, not his, says everything is hunky-dory here, we’ve investigated it and I congratulate them on their service, we move on, and now you’re telling me that there’s another hidden chamber investigating people that perhaps we don’t know about it?
ANDREW HASTIE: No, no, there’s no hidden chamber. The Government set up the Office of Special Investigator to keep this whole process at arm’s length and that’s an ongoing process.
RAY HADLEY: But wouldn’t they be undermined by the Defence Force Chief saying what he said?
ANDREW HASTIE: Well, his processes are different, and the Chief of Defence Force is responsible for the order and discipline of the Defence Force and, as you would know, he has command of the Defence Force under the direction of the Minister for Defence. So, I’m not being tricky here, Ray; I’m just trying to be clear with you. I’m at arm’s length from this process, and there is an active investigation through the Office of Special Investigator. We all know that, that’s been established for some time. There are Army internal processes. The question that people were dealing with last week was the story published by some outlets that there were people involved with the Brereton inquiry deployed to Kabul, that was completely false and untrue.
RAY HADLEY: It wasn’t reported here.
ANDREW HASTIE: They did a magnificent job last week. They did a magnificent job last week in very difficult and trying circumstances and, you know, we can be very proud of their success last week getting more than 4,100 Australians, and Afghan visa holders out of Kabul.
RAY HADLEY: Okay. Well, as I said, these men continue to have my support. If there’s no admin reason for them continuing on and they’ve been congratulated for their service by the Defence Force Chief without an apology, although there’s been an apology offered by your Minister, I’ll leave it up to greater minds than mine to understand where we are at this particular point, and I’ll get a chance to ask him those questions when I talk to him again tomorrow. But I thank you for your time today on the other matter. Thanks very much.
ANDREW HASTIE: Pleasure, Ray. Thanks for chatting.
RAY HADLEY: Andrew Hastie, Assistant Defence Minister and former SAS Captain.