ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY COMMUNICATIONS BRANCH ASSOCIATION
Letter from CDRE Bob Trotter
In your reporting of the revelations of the DLA Piper Report regarding allegations of abuse within the Australian Defence Force, can you please acknowledge the fact that tens of thousands of young men and women have served and are now serving this nation with exemplary honour, honesty, courage, integrity and loyalty (the latter sorely tested by the neglect by omission on the part of their political leadership and some media reports)? Their voices if heard would reveal that there is no systemic, endemic or culture of abuse in the ADF and there never has been.
Of course there have been serious offences by individuals over the years and there will be more in the future. The ADF is after all populated by people inducted from the broader Australian public and can expect that a number of miscreants will slip through the recruiting filters. The ADF does not train people to behave badly unless forming them into teams to trust each others skill to defeat an enemy is bad behaviour; indeed quite the reverse because it expects its members to perform to those values mentioned above. Regrettably, occasions will arise when even the best systems are beaten by those with wrongful intent and in my experience of the Navy, when they are detected the system works swiftly to bring them to account.
I am a veteran of 35 years active service in the Navy and after retiring in 1998 I have continued to serve the interests of Navy veterans. Summing all of my experience starting as an 18 year old in an old destroyer used as the Training Ship, as a junior and senior officer in surface warships and submarines; in senior management positions including those with responsibility for behavioural programs and the assimilation of women into combat ships and submarines; I have never seen or heard of the types of serious abuse that has been alleged and gone unreported. Yes, some summary and very tough discipline by the civilian standards of the day.
The DLA Piper Review seems to cover some 50 years or more! Is it not a false premise to examine practices of past generations through the prism of contemporary values and then condemn those practices as if they were today’s? All reasonable persons will of course readily agree that if abuse did happen then certainly it should be dealt with firmly. But was it all abuse? Conditions on ships during the fifties, sixties and early seventies were tough and the men who taught us to handle those conditions were tough ex-World War Two and Korean War Veterans who were unyielding in passing on their standards learned the hard way, in combat. These are also the men who saw the conditions under which they served and strived tirelessly over many years to improve them to what sailors enjoy today. Many young men and women under them failed and discharged some blaming the system rather than praising the men who may have simply done them a favour, indeed maybe even saved their lives by weeding them out. Those men and women of all ranks who fought long and hard to improve conditions of service would quite rightly feel betrayed if they could witness the politicisation of their Service’s management for the sake of a very, very few untested allegations.
And what is the numbers context? When I was last involved in ADF people numbers in the mid-90s, the average annual turnover of personnel was about 10% and I suspect that it is little different today. If current strength of the ADF of 60,000 (excluding Active Reserves) is the average over the last 50 years of the DLA Piper investigation, the number of people separating each year for all reasons would be 6000 or 300,000 total. If all of those 700 with an allegation of abuse separated from the ADF because of it then 0.23% or less that one person in every 400 might have done so because of what are now plausible but untested allegations. If any alleged victims continued to serve then this is much lower. Are we to spend scarce taxpayer funds on a witch hunt based on these figures or, even worse, sit in judgement over the whole ADF based on the untested allegations of so few?
Whenever the subject of the alleged “culture of abuse” comes up my email Inbox lights up with messages from men who served as sailors and officers in careers from four to forty years in old steam ships, modern frigates or submarines; who were Cadets at the Naval College; Junior Recruits at HMAS Leeuwin; Apprentices at HMAS Nirimba; General Entry at HMAS Cerberus and all of whom have absolutely no recollection of any of the abuse being witnessed nor had any even heard of it on the very powerful sailors grapevine. Yes, sometimes sailors were tough on each other within their peer groups, as young men and women can be in many varieties of institutional living not exclusive to the ADF. Yes, in a previous era there were peer group rites, initiation ceremonies and admonishments that were themselves relics of an even earlier era across many sections of the community but now quite rightly purged from the psyche (I recall getting the boot black treatment as a new Boy Scout in the fifties!). But, the management skill of the Naval Divisional System which has survived the test of a century of success was there to report and detect unhealthy actions and mostly did so.
Please speak up for the sailors, soldiers and airmen and women who have served and are serving exemplarily and who daily disprove the proposition that there is a culture of abuse in the ADF?
Commodore Bob Trotter OAM RAN (Ret'd) FIEAust
Past Director, Finding Sydney Foundation (2001-11)
Past National & WA President, Naval Association of Australia
1/9 Cornwall St, Swanbourne, WA, 6010
0418 487 158