KIERAN GILBERT: Defence minister, Linda Reynolds, thanks very much for your time. Will the group citation, the meritorious conduct citation, for the Special Operation Task Group that served in Afghanistan be revoked?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, good morning, Kieran. And, look, firstly, let me address the issues in relation to the Inspector-General ADF’s report and then I’ll come to the Meritorious Unit Citation issue.
From my perspective as the Minister for Defence this is the most consequential report that any Chief of Defence Force on behalf of an Australian Defence Force and also Prime Minister and a minister have had to deal with in the history of our nation. There is no rule book, Kieran, in in terms of how to deal with this given the gravity and the allegations and the conduct reported in Justice Brereton’s report.
So this is why on the 12th of November – before the report was publicly released by the CDF, the Prime Minister and I announced the government response to this. There’s two lots of conduct that need to be dealt with over the long term. The first one is the serious allegations of criminality – in this case, war crimes. Which is why we’ve set up the Office of Special Investigator to further investigate and then take those allegations of misconduct and crimes through the Australian criminal justice process over time.
The second is a range of conduct that was explicitly mentioned in the report and the follow-on issues that relate to that. And they are very sensitive, they are very complex and they relate to failures of leadership to the conduct of Defence Force personnel over many years. And they, quite rightly, should be dealt with administratively by the Defence under the Defence Force Discipline Act.
So with that group of issues I’ve set up the oversight panel which will report directly to me to oversee the implementation of all of the recommendations and all of the follow-on implications of that. That oversight panel is up and running and they will report directly to me so I can also then report back to Australians about the progress over time.
But, as I said, there is no rule book for this. So in relation to the many issues that are emerging from this – and, of course, there are many, and there will continue to be so – there is a lot of media commentary, as there should be, and there is obviously a lot of deep emotion that these issues are now resulting in, by veterans, by Defence Force personnel, and that will continue to be the case.
So the Chief of Defence Force made his initial comments on the report when he released the report. He is now – as he said in his statement yesterday, he is now considering all of the findings and he is now developing his implementation plan. So obviously one of the recommendations was in relation to the Meritorious Unit Citation, and he said yesterday that he is further considering that.
The Prime Minister and I have got a responsibility, as all Australians would expect, to listen to the community, to listen to veterans, to listen to service personnel, and we’ve done that. And we have expressed our opinion to the Chief of Defence Force –
KIERAN GILBERT: And that is don’t strip the unit?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, we’ve provided that feedback, but ultimately this is a decision for the Chief of Defence Force and he will take that decision when he’s ready to do so.
KIERAN GILBERT: When you say provided that feedback, just to clarify, you’ve made your opinion and the Prime Minister’s made his opinion known that that unit citation should not be stripped in its entirety so that innocent people don’t get tarred with the same brush?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, what the Prime Minister and I have said is that we have listened to a wide range of key stakeholders in this issue. We have expressed those opinions and provided that feedback to the CDF. He has also heard those same opinions and thoughts and he’s now considering the matter further.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it appropriate to be intervening like that, for politicians?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, all Australians would expect the Prime Minister and myself as Minister for Defence to listen and also to express opinions. Now, ultimately, it is a decision for the Chief, and as he has said, he is considering that and all other recommendations at the moment.
KIERAN GILBERT: In terms of the feedback you’ve received, have you received feedback from soldiers saying they believe the higher command have been exonerated, basically escaped, in terms of serious criticism in the report while soldiers are basically being found guilty before there’s even a trial?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, I have heard – and I have talked to mean people – and I have got nearly 30 years’ experience in the army myself. And I continue to talk to many people. So these very confronting findings and comments in the report are bringing out a wide range of emotions and opinions. I have said publicly, and I will sort of repeat here to you today, that the report does demonstrate very serious failures of leadership over many years in the Australian Defence Force and across the defence organisation more widely.
The reasons for those leadership failures and command failures need serious analysis and considerations. So we are not judging to conclusions. Any of the allegations of criminality in that report are going through the Office of Special Investigator and they will be carefully considered through the Australian criminal justice process with the presumption of innocence, of course. But there are serious issues that now need to be addressed in how this happened and how it was able to happen for so long.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yes, well, in that context, I’ve had diggers write to me, correspondence saying they believe the CDF and Chief of Army should quit. That’s the view amongst some diggers, frustrated that they feel soldiers are being scapegoated without a trial and yet the top brass are exonerated from any responsibility. Can you understand their frustration?
LINDA REYNOLDS: I can understand – I’ve heard a lot of frustration about a lot of aspects of this. And, Kieran, can I just remind you and all Australians that this is unprecedented. The Australian Defence Force has never had to face such serious and consequential findings and recommendations of not only of allegations of criminality but also allegations and findings of failures of leadership. And they’re so comprehensive that they are not being ignored, but they now need to be reviewed.
And, again, that’s part of the implementation process. It’s not just – so the CDF is developing his implementation plan. That will be approved by all of Defence’s leadership. That will then come to me for approval. And, again, obviously in close consultation with the Prime Minister. But these are processes that will go on for years. But it is essential – it is absolutely essential – that we are transparent in that process and that not only does Defence gain an understanding of how this failure of leadership and command and how this aberrant behavior was allowed to go uncorrected for many years.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’ve seen a spate of veteran suicides – there were nine in just a fortnight. Jacqui Lambie and other parliamentarians and support more broadly – they want a royal commission. Will you reconsider your approach to this and look at the idea of a royal commission? Because they’re saying have a brigadier in charge of the veterans suicide commission is not the way forward because the veterans concerns, their families, have lost faith in Defence. They’ve lost faith in the military. They don’t want a brigadier running this thing.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, there’s a number of issues to unpack in that area. The first is that one suicide is too many, whether it’s in the military or, you know, in the broader community. Defence and the government have implemented a wide range of measures over many years. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons from the past, and we need to learn more. So the issue of the commissioner into veteran suicide is something that’s being run by the Attorney-General, not myself – quite rightly.
So rather than having a royal commission that starts and stops, makes a recommendation then starts and stops, what the approach this government has through this independent commissioner is to have a standing – the equivalent of a standing royal commission to really talk to all coroners around the country, to talk to families to really, really understand what has led – what are the factors that lead to somebody attempting or actually, you know, successfully committing suicide. To understand those factors, because we don’t really have a good enough understanding yet, and then to make sure that we can keep doing that so that we just don’t have a set start, stop royal commission; this is ongoing.
KIERAN GILBERT: But they don’t want it run by Defence, that’s the criticism.
LINDA REYNOLDS: But the thing is, it’s not being run by Defence. This is entirely run by the Attorney-General.
KIERAN GILBERT: A brigadier is the commissioner.
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, no, no. Sorry, this is a really misunderstanding. This is entirely run by the Attorney-General. All appointments are made by the Attorney-General. And this is not in any way run by Defence.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at some other matters – the big one in the last few days. Did you expect other nations to use the Brereton report and its findings, as China has sought to do so, to try and claim a high moral ground as they’ve done with that tweet yesterday?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, I think the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have very comprehensively dealt with that matter yesterday. And I don’t really have anything of use to add to their comments. But what I can do is just reinforce their comments that we remain open to working with all nations in our region.
KIERAN GILBERT: Did the PM have to get involved in this? Because showing outrage in response to a relatively low-ranking official and asking Beijing for an apology he’s unlikely to get, doesn’t that risk making things worse?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, that’s your commentary, not mine. And I think the Prime Minister dealt with an issue very, very comprehensively and appropriately.
KIERAN GILBERT: There’s a Chinese saying that kill the chicken, scare the monkey. Are you concerned that we’re being used as an example to other nations?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, far be it from me to speculate on the motivation of any other nation. But what I can say is that under Scott Morrison’s leadership we will always and we do always stand up for our nation’s sovereignty. And whether it’s foreign interference, whether it’s cyber incursion and whatever nation it seeking to interfere with our nation, we will stand up for our nation’s rights.
KIERAN GILBERT: But is there a point where countries like Australia that bear the brunt of this wolf warrior diplomacy make a decision not to engage with the rhetorical aggression if at the very least to give it less air time?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Kieran, the Prime Minister was very clear in his comments yesterday and he is, as he always will do and as this government will always do, is stand up for our nation’s sovereignty and stand up for our national interests. And he has been very, very clear on that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Would you consider freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of a reclaimed Chinese territory, reclaimed islands and so on, in the South China Sea? International law does not recognize that as Chinese territory. The Chinese say it is. Would you consider authorizing a freedom of navigation exercise within that 12-nautical-mile zone?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, I don’t think Australians would expect me to talk about operational considerations for our Navy or for the Air Force for overflight. But I can say that for this year, even during the COVID pandemic, we have regularly conducted passages through the South China Sea unilaterally, bilaterally and multi-laterally with nations, with friends such as the United States and Japan and other regional partners. So we have continued to have passages and do activities in that region and will continue to do so.
KIERAN GILBERT: Given the animosity now in that relationship with China, are there enhanced risks associated with operation in the South China Sea?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, as you’d expect, the Defence Force always conduct risk assessments and they always make sure that whatever we do the safety of our people is paramount. We do – we regularly conduct passages and activities in the region and they are conducted safely. And we have seen no change in that.
KIERAN GILBERT: But given the heat in the relationship, is there risk of a skirmish?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, that’s entirely hypothetical, Kieran. But what I can say is that we regularly do passages through the region. We conduct them safely, but we do them under international law. So whether it’s ships, freedom of navigation under UNCLOS or whether it is our aircraft flying in the region, we do so regularly and we exercise our international rights.
KIERAN GILBERT: A couple of quick questions on capacity before you go. Full cycle docking maintenance for the subs, the submarines, will that be moved from South Australia to WA?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Kieran, the government will make all of the decisions in relation to our national naval ship building plan at the right time and in the national interest. What people don’t realise is that we are now investing in the largest ever recapitalization of our Australian Navy. We have a 50-year-plus naval ship building and sustainment program, over 180 billion investment by the taxpayer. So we are taking all of the decisions in relation to our current fleet of regionally superior submarines, which is the six Collins Class submarines. We currently do intermediate and mid-cycle docking in Western Australia and South Australia and full cycle docking is currently done in South Australia. We haven’t yet made a decision about the longer term future of where the full cycle docking is undertaken, but this is not a binary decision between states.
KIERAN GILBERT: Will you make it soon, though? Because from my understanding it would take several years to move that capacity?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Kieran, we are already just in terms of we have made, you know, many billions of dollars’ worth of decisions for both to the benefit of our two naval ship building hubs – South Australia and Western Australia, so Perth and Adelaide. And both are growing significantly. And significant naval ship building is underway in both locations, and that will continue to grow.
So, like all of the decisions in this large and complex program, we’ll make them in the nation’s interests and at the right time, which is what all Australians would expect.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it soon, though? Because it was due, I think, 12 months ago wasn’t it?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Whatever decision is made, this is something that any move which may or may not occur is still many years away. So we are focused in a very systematic way on the decisions we need to make today to develop the workforce, to build infrastructure for naval ship building, to go into the contracts for sustainment and also maintenance. So we’ll make it when it’s the right time to make it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Finally, you’ve got an announcement, I believe, today in terms of Australia and US military working together on a hypersonic missile capacity.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Yes.
KIERAN GILBERT: Why is that being pursued and what will that afford Australia in terms of our national defence?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well hypersonic missile technologies is developing very rapidly. This is something that Australian institutions and also the Australian Defence Force have been researching for many years. And we’ve been researching this together with the United States for about 15 years. In recent years there have been very significant developments in this technology, in hypersonic glide weapons in particular.
So this is an important area not only for us to understand the technology itself but also how it is being militarised. So when I was at AUSMIN a few months ago I discussed this with the then Secretary Esper, and I’m really delighted to see that those discussions have now come to this new agreement, because this is a profoundly consequential technology.
KIERAN GILBERT: And what’s the time frame for that in terms of developing it? Are you expecting it within years, decades, what is the timeframe?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We’ve been working on this for 15 years, and so this takes our engagement together and our collaboration to the next level for the long term. Because this is – hypersonics is an incredibly consequential and very disruptive new technology, and particularly to any military application. And it is something that we must understand and it is something that we must be prepared for.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, appreciate it. Thanks for your time.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thank you, Kieran.