Military awards system overhaul fight ramps up as Diggers urge Government to revisit 2015 honours inquiry

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
New documents could further fuel a push by Diggers to have the system awarding military honours overhauled.
New documents could further fuel a push by Diggers to have the system awarding military honours overhauled. Credit: Art by William Pearce/The Nightly

Veterans and serving personnel are calling on the Government to revisit an inquiry recommendation from almost a decade ago, as part of a broader push to change how Australia’s military honours and awards tribunal functions.

Documents released this week under Freedom of Information, which detail how the defence force responded to a 2015 inquiry recommendation, have raised eyebrows within a section of the defence community who are concerned about the way the system operates.

It comes as the senate on Wednesday agreed to establish a new inquiry into the “integrity and efficacy of the defence honours and awards system” after The Nightly revealed dozens of retired and serving personnel had written to Defence Minister Richard Marles demanding he not only revoke outgoing chief Angus Campbell’s Distinguished Service Cross, but make changes to how the system that awards such military honours operates.

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The group put to Mr Marles that the honours and awards system was being regularly abused by high-ranking personnel, that there was “tangible evidence of the abuse going back nearly 30 years”, and called for the power to approve prestigious awards to be shifted away from the Department of Defence and to the independent Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal (DHAAT).

In addition, the group - still angry over General Campbell’s attempts to strip the meritorious unit citation from 3000 Afghanistan vets, which was thwarted by the former government - say the tribunal should be able to hear and determine appeals regarding decisions to revoke a military medal or award.

DHAAT, which began operating in 2011, can only review decisions in relation to the conferral of defence honours and awards; and inquire into and report to the defence minister matters referred to it by the minister.

As it stands, military medals and honours can be cancelled by the Governor-General, at the direction of the minister, in certain select circumstances which the government says “protects the integrity of the honours and awards system”.

The documents released this week relate to a 2015 DHAAT inquiry into refusal to issue, withhold and forfeit honours and awards, and the ultimate decision not to accept one recommendation that would have given personnel who had their medals revoked a right of review.

Having looked through the 130 pages of correspondence and briefing notes, some members say it is “yet another example” of why defence should be removed from the process of awarding honours and awards.

“The DHHAT board should be given the powers recommended to it in the first place to review these things,” one veteran said.

They are concerned that although the fifth recommendation - which called for the Defence Act to be amended to “provide a mechanism for review of decisions to withhold, forfeit or restore medals” - was initially supported, that eventually waned over time.

Members of the defence community say without reconsidering such changes, the door remains open for “arbitrary and capricious decisions by senior military officers to revoke an award, knowing full well that there is no right of review”, and are urging the newly formed senate inquiry to consider this.

They stipulated they were not countenancing cases of criminal misconduct or “appallingly bad behaviour”.

The FOI documents reveal the fifth recommendation was initially described in September 2015 by the department as “reasonable and not controversial”, with consultation with the legal arm of the defence force.

By the time the then-defence chief Mark Binskin (CDF) was handed a decision brief in August 2016, the department had suggested he “endorse” the recommendation, with a background note detailing that if the advice was agreed to, “the review powers of the tribunal will increase”.

The documents reveal that the Defence Honours and Awards Advisory Group (DHAAG), which sits within the department, had initially supported the fifth recommendation - but emails sent from Air Chief Marshal Binskin’s office reveal further discussion was needed on the final two recommendations before anything was actioned.

A defence official met with Dan Tehan, then the defence personnel minister, in September of 2016 to discuss the matter. In the briefing notes, it was noted that the CDF was still seeking advice, but that the CDF “may not support, or agree fully with each of the tribunal’s recommendations”.

By the end of that month, a DHAAG out of session meeting noted that by that point, although the initial brief to Air Chief Marshal Binskin recommended accepting all five recommendations, the CDF “does not support recommendation 5”, and instead supported “taking this opportunity to independently review the tribunal”.

The group agreed to rewrite recommendation 5 to be a “suggestion to the minister that the tribunal has an independent review of their purpose”’.

When the CDF signed off on the decision brief in October 2016, he agreed to “not accept” recommendation five, and to recommend to the defence personnel minister that an “independent review be conducted of the role and powers of the tribunal”. In the background note, it was recorded the DHAAG “does not support this recommendation”, and concerns over the tribunal were cited to strengthen the argument.

In ministerial advice to Mr Tehan, Mr Binksin wrote he was “reluctant to endorse this recommendation at this time”, suggesting an independent review of the tribunal be carried out in 2017 instead.

Mr Tehan met with the CDF twice in November before actioning the government’s formal advice.

A meeting brief from the second meeting, which also included then-DHAAT chair Mark Sullivan, outlined one objective was to “inform the minister of options to respond” to recommendation five.

“If the government agrees to this recommendation, the current tribunal’s review powers will increase to include reviews of decisions made by 1939 to withhold, forfeit, and /or restore a member’s medallic recognition,” the note said.

Underlined for the CDF was the key point that some tribunal decisions that recommended veterans be recognised with contemporary gallantry, distinguished and meritorious service awards had “raised concern for the service chiefs and command chiefs”.

According to the notes, the defence chief canvassed concerns about broadening the tribunal’s scope beyond its “historical swimlane”.

Defence put forward a number of options to the minister to address concerns, including that the government direct an independent review, pursue options to amend legislation of the tribunal’s scope, amend regulations to insert “sunset clauses” for nominations, and suggested amendments to the overarching legislation and schedule.

By December 2016, Mr Tehan had formalised the government’s position - accepting the first four recommendations and advising the fifth “remains under consideration, and I will advise of further progress on this matter in 2017”.

Despite all correspondence regarding the fifth recommendation up until this year being requested by the FOI applicant, the last document was from February 2017 - a letter from Mr Tehan to Mr Sullivan announcing his intention to convene a further meeting “in early 2017”.

It’s not clear whether any further action was taken, but the specific section of the Defence Act singled out in the inquiry has not been amended.

In response to direct questions about whether any further action was taken on the recommendation, a spokesperson for current Defence Personnel Minister Matt Keogh said the 2015 inquiry was carried out when defence operated differently.

“Forfeiture of medals was historically, during World War One and Two, used as a form of military discipline, however Defence no longer uses this method. Honours and awards may still be cancelled, which is important as it protects the integrity of the honours and awards system,” the spokesperson said.

“The Inquiry into the Refusal to Issue Entitlements to, Withholding and Forfeiture of Defence Honours and Awards was established by the previous Government when Defence had different rules around the forfeiture or cancellation of Defence Honours and Awards.”

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