Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:39 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: More on the ADF lost voice

This post is part of the The ADF in public debate debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

19 September 2012 09:25

This post is part of the The ADF in public debate debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Hugh Smith, a former lecturer at RMC Duntroon and ADFA, writes:

Al Palazzo's article on why ADF voices are largely absent from strategic debate in this country is important. It draws attention to a major weakness in the public discussion of Australian defence and security and indicates a marked contrast with the freedom of expression enjoyed by military personnel in the US and to some extent the UK. The Chief of Army's response is also important for what it reveals about certain ingrained attitudes toward open debate of controversial issues.

My one criticism of the Palazzo paper is that – perhaps unavoidably – it ignores the elephant in the room, namely the political factor. Thanks to the adversarial nature of Australian politics, defence ministers are reluctant to see serving officers express any views that are even slightly critical of or divergent from prevailing policy. They will be seized upon by the Opposition – and probably the media – as evidence of the 'failure' of government policy or of 'discontent' in the ranks. Senior members of the ADF understand this; and they understand that ministers will not be happy if they express controversial views in public or permit subordinates to express such opinions.

Nothing is put in words so that any policy of censorship can be denied. But anyone who has had a long association with the ADF, as I have since 1971 as a UNSW academic at RMC Duntroon and ADFA, will be familiar with the phenomenon.

The response by the Chief of Army, General Morrison, uses a phrase that is highly revealing. He is willing to see military personnel publicise their views provided that 'the Department (and Government) knows what public comment is being expressed and that it is correct'. But why does Government need to know in advance every statement that every officer might make to the media? The reason is obvious and the consequences clear.

General Morrison then insists that public comment should be 'correct'. What this means is not just that factual mistakes should be avoided but that controversial views must be suppressed. Yet debate about important issues does not deal in 'correct' and 'incorrect' views. Certainly, some facts may be correct or incorrect – such as how many submarines the ADF has – but why we need submarines, the sort of roles they should perform, whether 6 or 12 would be adequate, the appropriate level of spending on such platforms and so on are issues on which there is no 'correct' or 'incorrect' view.

In any serious dialogue about major defence issues, divergent views are inevitable and desirable. And such views need to be expressed and debated by those who have thought seriously about them – including, but not limited to, military personnel. Something as broad and uncertain as the future of war – which Al Palazzo's article focused on – is above all one in which a wide range of informed views should be heard.

The suggestion that the ADF may not have the 'intellectual horsepower' (Sir Arthur Tange's phrase) to discuss major defence and security issues is one I would discount, in part again from personal experience. After UNSW introduced the Master of Defence Studies at ADFA in 1987 a large number of middle-level ADF officers enrolled part-time in a range of courses. This was a long-awaited opportunity for them to study and learn and they proved an outstanding group. I taught two courses – one on ethics, law and war, and one on armed forces and society. The level of debate in class was high and discussion animated with divergent views on most matters. Colleagues teaching other masters courses were similarly impressed.

One of the points made by Dr Anthony Bergin and myself in a recent study of professional military education (ASPI Special Report no. 48, August 2012) was that there is no real opportunity for ADF personnel to publicly demonstrate their intelligence and expertise – in contrast to every other profession. We suggested the ADF create a journal with a high degree of editorial independence that would be a forum for debate about major defence issues. Contributions would come from all quarters but well-argued critical articles from ADF personnel would be particularly welcomed. My suggestion is that it should be launched by the Minister for Defence.

This may be too much to expect but there is a precedent, albeit limited. A few years ago an enlightened Commandant at ADFA designated a part of the campus bounded by the library, bookshop, coffee shop and IT centre as a 'non-saluting area' where all could meet in a more or less non-hierarchical fashion. Perhaps a professional military journal could become another 'non-saluting area'.