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Australia's Defence personnel deserve a better go from their administration

By Michael O'Connor - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2003

The 2000 Defence White Paper devoted a whole chapter to personnel, emphasising that "People are Capability". That chapter, apart from a commitment to increase the size of the regular ADF by a miserable 250 personnel a year for ten years, is a collection of platitudes and inaccuracies. Yet people are the essence of military capability in the sense that the weapons and systems which tend to dominate discussion about defence are merely the tools that empower the people of the ADF. That has always been the reality of Australia's military but, in the new strategic environment, is even more important today.

Unlike many other countries, which tend to see the individual soldier as a carrier of firepower, Australia has always valued personal initiative and intense training to maximise the power both of the individual and the team.

Australian military history is replete with incidents where individuals have taken control of and dominated a situation against heavy odds. These have occurred not only in battle or at senior levels but in the challenging circumstances of peace operations. This has led to the phenomenon of what is called "the strategic corporal" where very junior personnel, often in their early 20s, can have a widespread effect on a campaign through the force of personality and training.


Australian military doctrine reinforces this capability by what it calls the system of "directive control". Directive control eschews the giving of very detailed orders. Instead, commanders, even at junior levels, are given relatively broad directives and resources of personnel and supplies, and told to get on with the job using their discretion (which is bolstered by training) to achieve the commander's objectives.

This has led in the past to difficulties with allied officers who perceived Australians as undisciplined. In fact, many of those allied officers eventually agreed that the Australian training and national culture produced a vigorous, self-reliant soldier whose battle discipline and initiative was superior to most others. It made up somewhat for what would always be a shortage of numbers driven by our relatively small population and commitment to a voluntary system of recruitment.

On the other hand, we have not valued our personnel to the same degree. Every serviceman and woman has some horror story about some insensitive treatment by the Defence personnel administration. Some years ago I urged the then Minister for Defence Personnel to administer the rules from the heart rather than from the head. It was not to be.

Perhaps it is impossible to administer a force of some 70,000 regular and reserve personnel with any degree of equity but the level of indifference to individual circumstances is sometimes appalling.

Similarly, the ability of those very few individuals who seek to exploit the system for their own benefit to gain a sympathetic hearing from the administration is all too often achieved at the expense of their mates. A classic recent example was the refusal of anthrax vaccinations by a number of personnel deployed to the Middle East.

Perhaps as many as 40 personnel from ships deploying to or in the Middle East refused to accept anthrax vaccination and were returned to Australia. Defence chiefs said that no disciplinary or administrative action would be taken against these personnel.


Possibly the reason for not taking such action is that Defence failed to provide advice on the vaccinations, or the vaccinations themselves, before the ships left Australia. Nevertheless, the action of these personnel, a small minority of the 700 or so in the three ships, is disappointing. Clearly they accepted the validity of some scaremongering articles on the Internet rather than the considered judgement of the ADF's medical experts.

What is certain is that the personnel concerned have walked away from their duty and their obligation to their shipmates. They have left gaps that must now be filled by other personnel who have not worked up with the ships. This would have consequential problems in the posting cycle for a considerable number of people throughout the ADF.

There is a strong argument for the proposition that these personnel made themselves unfit for their assigned duty. In those circumstances, there should be some sanctions unless or until within a reasonable time they make themselves fit for that or any other duty. The notion that individual service personnel should be allowed to assert the superiority of their unqualified judgements and override professional experts is risky. At the very least, there should be some disciplinary or administrative consequences.

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About the Author

Michael O'Connor is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

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