Minister for Defence – Statement on Report on Abuse at HMAS Leeuwin

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Senator the Hon David Johnston

Minister for Defence

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18 June 2014

I refer to two documents that have been tabled in this house this morning.

One document is the sixth interim Report of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, the DART. This is the three monthly Report provided to me and the Attorney General by the Head of the Taskforce the Hon Len Roberts-Smith. I would like to personally thank Len Roberts-Smith and his team for the outstanding work they have done.

I am very grateful for the Report. It makes clear that significant and positive progress is being made in dealing with the some 2400 complaints to the DART.

While I will have more to say on the future of the DART following the Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade References Committee Inquiry and consultation with the Attorney General and the Head of the DART, I really wanted to say a few words about the second document tabled today.

The second document is the DART's Report on Abuse at HMAS Leeuwin.

The Report is a record of allegations of widespread serious and institutionalised abuse experienced by more than 200 Junior Recruits, young men, no – I would say children – aged between 15 and 17 years old, who trained at HMAS Leeuwin from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

Certainly, many of the boys who were trained at HMAS Leeuwin were not abused or mistreated. But that is no particular triumph because for significant numbers of the boys who trained with them, training was a horror, and something that appears to have profoundly damaged them with significant adverse consequences for their lives.

I have read the Report. I have to say that I am very, very disturbed by some of the things I read. More personally, I can tell you that I am profoundly moved by the direct and courageous way in which these men were able to revisit and recount events that occurred to them when they were children.

I think that any right minded person in Australia would be shocked and appalled at reading some of the stories captured in this Report. These are things that should never happen – to anyone - and not least to some 200 children who were under our care.

The Report is a powerful record of things past, things that were done and things that were remembered. Along with the repeated stories of sexual assault and humiliation, there is one quote that particularly upset me. It comes from a man who said that while he could tell his father some of the things that happened to him, he could not tell him everything. He said:

I was too ashamed to tell my Dad all the graphic details of the sexual attacks... Shame and disgust, mingled with self hatred is a very powerful deterrent to spilling your guts, even when it could save you.

No one should have to feel this way. And certainly no one in our care. No one in the Australian Navy or the Australian Army or the Australian Air Force – in fact no person in any workplace in Australia - should ever feel that they cannot tell their family about what happens to them at work.

And no one should ever feel that they cannot save themselves by speaking up.

I am proud to be Australia's Defence Minister. It is the best job in government. And while I am the Defence Minister I am making it my business, and the business of every person in the Australian Defence Force to make their section, their platoon, their flight, their ship or their brigade a better place to be.

In the next few weeks I will have more to say about how to make the Australian Defence Force a better place. A place that is more just.

I do note the Report's comment that complaints of abuse occurring at recruit and training schools make up a very high proportion of complaints received by the Taskforce. As I have said before, Defence is on a pathway to significant cultural change. And I will have more to say about that too.

I note that the Head of the Taskforce believes that a Royal Commission may not necessarily result in a broader understanding of the nature or extent of abuse at HMAS Leeuwin than is provided in the Report.

However, I also note that many of the allegations of abuse fall within the Terms of Reference of the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

And I understand that the Head of the Taskforce will be working closely with the HMAS Leeuwin men, seeking their consent to hand their information to the Royal Commission.

There are many stories in the Report. Senators will be profoundly disturbed and appalled by many of them. You will also be moved by the courage of the men who have come forward to tell their stories now.

We need to do more and we will do more. We owe nothing less to our young people in the Australian Defence Force, their parents and, in particular today, those children of HMAS Leeuwin who were so hurt and so damaged; unable to save themselves and abandoned.

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