MEDIA – ABC Radio Darwin – Transcript – New Defence Minister Peter Dutton overrules Angus Campbell’s decision to strip special forces of their meritorious unit citations

DARWIN – 19 April 2021

ADAM STEER, HOST: It’s one of Australia’s Defence Force’s darkest hours, which is why we’ve got Luke Gosling, the Member for Solomon, here in the studio. The release of the Brereton Report detailing allegations of war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. So serious were the allegations that the Chief of Defence, Angus Campbell, announced this:

AUDIO – CHIEF OF DEFENCE ANGUS CAMPBELL: Units live and fight as a team. The report acknowledges, therefore, that there is also a collective responsibility for what is alleged to have happened. With this in mind, I have accepted the inspector-general’s recommendation and will write to the Governor-General requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation for special operations task groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.

STEER: That was the Chief of Defence, Angus Campbell. So in a major development today, Australia’s new Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, will officially overrule Angus Campbell’s decision to strip special forces of their meritorious unit citations.

Luke Gosling is a former ADF member who served in Afghanistan and the federal Member for Solomon. So, Luke. Good morning again. What’s your reaction to this development?

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Morning, Adam. I just need to clear up one thing. I didn’t serve in Afghanistan, I worked there in security roles. That’s just really important to get that distinction –

STEER: You served in Iraq and –

GOSLING: East Timor, yeah, not Iraq. Yeah, I served in East Timor and worked in security roles in southern Afghanistan. What I saw there in southern Afghanistan, it was 2003, so it was not long after September 11 and now, what, 17 years later with the announcement of the drawdown in troops, it’s pretty emotional for a lot of people that put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into what we were doing there. And what we were doing there was sometimes not clear.

But just quickly, and it goes to the importance of the meritorious unit citation, it was always, regardless of the ambiguity, a very difficult role for our troops over there. And they absolutely deserve to be recognised in this way. When the Chief of the Defence Force announced that the meritorious unit citation would be revoked, one thing just struck me, and that was that the Minister for Defence was not standing beside him. They sent him out there by himself to deliver this news, didn’t back him in. Myself and others within days were out saying, “this is not a good decision, it’s wrong. It’s blaming everyone who was part of those missions – 3,000 Australian servicemen – for the sins of a few, and we shouldn’t do it”.

So five months later, under a new Minister for Defence, just prior to Minister Dutton visiting SAS, we see the timing of this this decision to not revoke it. Which I, of course, welcome. But you’ve got to question what’s been happening for five months.

STEER: Did you speak to Mr Dutton on this issue?

GOSLING: Minister Dutton’s just started in this role, but I made it clear in the federal parliament this was not an appropriate thing to do. In fact, it could be causing moral

injury. And I know that from talking to people in my own electorate here in Darwin and Palmerston who were awarded this unit citation and said to me, “why is this being taken off me? I actually saved Afghan lives. I didn’t take any in an illegal way.”

STEER: But should politicians be interfering with the decisions made by the head of Defence? He understands the morale of his unit, of his workforce. Should politicians be interfering with that decision?

GOSLING: The Chief of the Defence Force said something very true and very relevant just last night, or yesterday. Lieutenant-General Campbell said, and I quote, “as soldiers, our purpose is to serve the state, employing violence with humility always, and compassion wherever possible.” End quote. So in other words, it was really important that the Brereton Report occurred, because there had been extrajudicial killings. And a process that happens from here will decide whether those alleged war crimes are true or not. But what should not have happened is that this meritorious unit citation was taken away for all those that served so well over there.

JOLENE LAVERTY, HOST: regardless of your feelings on it, Luke Gosling, or anyone’s feelings on it, this was a recommendation made by the Inspector-General and it was then handed down by the Chief of Defence. So how appropriate is it, as Adam says, for a politician to come and override those decisions? And then, I mean, what sort of precedent does that set up for the future? When you have decisions that are made at the highest levels of the Defence Force overturned?

GOSLING: Perhaps there’ll be more consultation in the future about recommendations and their appropriateness. I mean, my job as an elected representative of the people of Darwin and Palmerston, including veterans and their families, including families that have lost sons in Afghanistan that have the meritorious unit citation, there’s no way in the world that I was going to sit back and allow a moral injury to be caused to 3,000 Australian patriots because of the sins of a few.

LAVERTY: But what about the point that the units live and fight as a team, Therefore, there’s a collective responsibility for the alleged war crimes?

GOSLING: There’s a whole range of responsibilities in war. But what’s important is when you go overseas with the Australian flag on your shoulder, you’re an ambassador for the country. And if your if your actions don’t live up to that high responsibility, then there’s processes that deal with you. And they should have everything that anyone should have: the presumption of innocence, firstly. And if there is a case against them, that should be heard in the court of law. And any awards that have been given, then there should be a consideration of withdrawing them for those that are found guilty.

LAVERTY: And I think that is the that is the decision of Minister Dutton, isn’t it? Unless proven guilty of war crimes, they get to keep the medal.

GOSLING: Yeah. And the question is why it hasn’t happened before now? But we all know that the Prime Minister knew that Linda Reynolds was under a dark cloud and he didn’t want her coming out, revoking what had already been decided.

STEER: It’s 20 to nine today on ABC Radio Darwin, Adam Steer and Jo Laverty with you. In a moment, we’re going to chat about a new CareFlight jet which is being launched today in Darwin.

But you’re hearing from Luke Gosling, who’s the Member for Solomon. Before we let you go, Luke, Darwinites have donated more than three shipping containers worth of goods, which will be sent over to Timor-Leste in the wake of the devastating floods that hit that area. What’s the situation on the ground as far as you understand it?

GOSLING: It’s not good at all, Adam, I’ve just heard this morning reports of essentially starvation in some of the cut-off communities. So we’ve got a situation where, because of the COVID lockdowns in Timor because they had an outbreak, malnourished kids became even more malnourished, and now they’re completely cut off. So what I would like Minister Dutton to do is to start responding to the emergency. And obviously the Prime Minister has a role here as well. When a similar disaster happened in Fiji, we had our landing helicopter dock ship, which is exactly purchased for this type of operation, head over to Fiji with helicopters to get aid in onto the ground.

One hour flight from Darwin to Dili, and we’ve sent in, what, one plane with two medics on it, when we’ve got 14,000 people in evacuation centres in Dili. We’ve got people starving, having a bowl of rice with a couple of leaves – that’s leaves, off trees – to try and get some nourishment. That’s what’s happening in Timor, and this Government, this Federal Government, is once again betraying our nearest neighbour.

STEER: The Federal Government has sent over a team from the Critical Care and Trauma Centre, the AUSMAT team.

GOSLING: They’ve sent over two personnel that were previously designated to go over and help with the COVID rollout. There needs to be an AUSMAT team on the ground, but that hasn’t been authorised yet, for a reason that escapes any of us. And we’ve sent over one shipload of supplies.

LAVERTY: That was a hefty shipload, though. According to the Foreign Minister, 27 tons of emergency relief materials, including hygiene, shelter, and food preparation kits, and a $7 million emergency relief package.

GOSLING: In in the request for help from the Timor Government, they asked specifically for support to get some of the humanitarian supplies to cut-off parts in the mountains of Timor. And those that have been the Timor will know that landslides and bridges being taken out mean that those communities can’t be resupplied by road. They need to be resupplied by air. Maybe the US Marines will show us all up and send their Ospreys over there from Darwin and get some support into those cut-off communities.

STEER: Good to hear from you this morning. There’s Luke Gosling, he’s the Member for Solomon.