Inquiry to probe integrity of military honours and awards amid claims of abuse

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
An inquiry into the “integrity and efficacy” of the military honours and awards system has been established.
An inquiry into the “integrity and efficacy” of the military honours and awards system has been established. Credit: The Nightly

The military honours and awards system will be put under a senate microscope amid growing discontent within the defence community over what they describe as “long-term abuse”.

An inquiry into the “integrity and efficacy” of the system was established on Wednesday after The Nightly revealed Defence Minister Richard Marles had received dozens of letters from veterans and serving personnel requesting he revoke outgoing defence chief Angus Campbell’s distinguished service cross.

They also called for changes to how military honours are bestowed and reviewed.

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Chief among their grievances, defence members have questioned how General Campbell could have been “in action” — as the criteria for his medal stipulated at the time — when he spent two-thirds of his tenure as commander of Afghanistan troops in the United Arab Emirates and was never in close proximity to or under fire from an adversary.

The group, still angry over General Campbell’s failed 2020 attempt to strip the meritorious unit citation from 3000 Afghanistan troops, also put to Mr Marles that the honours and awards system was being regularly abused by high-ranking personnel, claiming there was “tangible evidence of this abuse going back nearly 30 years”.

In what members of the group have described as a “major win”, and a “step closer to improving the system”, Senator Malcolm Roberts on Wednesday successfully referred “the integrity and efficacy of the defence honours and awards system” to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade references committee for an inquiry.

The Nightly's frontpage on July 1.
The Nightly's frontpage on July 1. Credit: The Nightly

Senator Roberts said the system “needs a serious inquiry” and thanked the Coalition, and fellow crossbench senators Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie, Tammy Tyrrell, Ralph Babet and David Pocock, for supporting his motion.

“Senior officers have completely abused the defence honours and awards system, and senior brass often nominate each other for medals like it comes in their salary package,” Senator Roberts said.

“Meanwhile, enlisted personnel have to fight for recognition and higher-ups arbitrarily downgrade their medals.

“I suspect Angus Campbell’s Distinguished Service Cross is the top of the iceberg, and this inquiry will have the ability to look at the issue in depth.”

Veterans and serving personnel have demanded defence chief Angus Campbell’s distinguished service cross be revoked.
Veterans and serving personnel have demanded defence chief Angus Campbell’s distinguished service cross be revoked. Credit: AAP

The inquiry will need to consider the integrity of awards to senior officers for conduct in the Afghanistan conflict; the experiences of defence force personnel progressing the honours and awards system; and the effect of awards and honours on maintaining morale within the defence force.

The inquiry will also need to focus on the effect of changes in criteria for some honours and awards, including the 2011 change for the DSC from “in action” to “in warlike operations”.

That follows multiple members of the defence community telling The Nightly the change in criteria was “dodgy”, with the group putting to Mr Marles the Letters Patent had been changed because “the ADF was aware, and had been for many years, that the requirement for recipients to be ‘in action’ was “problematic”.

Some defence members will suggest to senators that the Letters Patent itself should be more comprehensive, and have definitions for terms such as “in warlike operations”.

They suggested there needed to be a comprehensive revocation process in the Letters Patent itself, and that the Defence Act needed to be amended to enable the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal greater scope in dealing with revocations.

The inquiry will be tasked with considering more broadly the operation of the tribunal, and whether there are any potential improvements needed to the defence honours and awards system.

One member questioned why Labor, which created the tribunal in 2010, had “opposed giving them more power”.

The inquiry is due to report back by November.

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