‘Can’t sweep this under the rug’: Reynolds calls for more ADF transparency

Former Coalition defence minister Linda Reynolds has called for more transparency about how the Australian Defence Force is improving its culture following the Brereton war crimes inquiry and urged the nation’s most senior officers to take greater responsibility for alleged wrongdoing in Afghanistan.

Reynolds, who was defence minister when the Brereton report was released in 2020, said there was still resistance to recognising the military’s ethical failures in Afghanistan, even after a Federal Court judge found Ben Roberts-Smith to be a murderer and war criminal when dismissing his defamation case against media outlets last week.

Former defence minister Linda Reynolds is calling for more transparency from the Australian Defence Force about how it has reformed its culture.

Alex Ellinghausen

“There is still an attitude in some quarters that if you raise these issues, it is a slight against all veterans, that somehow what happens in war should stay in war,” Reynolds said in an interview.

“But we can’t sweep this under the rug. There can be no legal or moral excuses for war crimes.”

Reynolds said at the time she felt “physically ill” when she read the Brereton report, which found credible evidence to implicate 25 current or former ADF personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.

The Liberal senator echoed a call this week from Samantha Crompvoets, the sociologist whose work triggered the inquiry, for more detail from Defence leaders about how they had responded to the issues raised in the report since its release.

“We need far more transparency beyond the criminal justice process,” Reynolds said.

Crompvoets said some soldiers had told her the culture inside the Special Air Service Regiment had improved since the Brereton inquiry, but added: “Where is the transparency from Defence about what changes have been made and why? Where is the thought leadership, the speeches and essays on what has been learnt?”

Before entering politics, Reynolds served for 29 years as an Army Reserve officer and was the first woman in the Army Reserve to be promoted to the rank of brigadier.

She said there was significant frustration in the veterans’ community that the most senior levels of the Defence hierarchy had not been held accountable for failing to act on widespread rumours of unethical behaviour by some military units.

“This issue still rankles a lot of people in Defence and army,” she said. “As the chief of Defence Force acknowledged at the time, there was a serious breakdown of chain-of-command leadership.

“There were certainly indications all was not well, but a blind eye was turned.”

Brereton’s inquiry found it was at the patrol commander level that any “criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued and concealed, and overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides”.

Those in higher positions in the Defence hierarchy and the government were found not to have responsibility and accountability for any wrongdoing because they did not have a sufficient degree of command and control over the relevant troops.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said last week Defence Minister Richard Marles should not remove medals from a small number of Afghanistan military commanders even though Defence chief Angus Campbell has recommended he do so.

“I think it’s difficult to maintain an argument that if somebody is alleged to have committed an offence in Afghanistan, that somebody of a higher rank who wasn’t there, didn’t know about the incident, that they should lose their medal because of the chain of command,” Dutton said.

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