Security Challenges
Volume 11, No.1 (2015)

A Disconnect between Policy and Practice - Defence Transparency in Australia

In a bureaucracy as large as the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) attributing the cause of policy failure is a difficult task. I’ve previously highlighted societal and parliamentary factors that hamper transparency and the scrutiny of defence policy in Australia.1 This commentary will more deeply consider bureaucratic, legal, and cultural traits within the ADO that militate against the organisation’s own stated policy of a “pro-disclosure” culture, as well as Defence’s legislated requirement to be open and accountable to the Australian public. Analysing the ADO’s information disclosure policy with regard to an operational incident that took place in Afghanistan nearly two years ago, shows that a particularly toxic combination of deliberate opaqueness, stalled process, and capacity constraints have served to create a roadblock to defence transparency and public accountability. The case study examined is one in which Australian soldiers were originally accused of having committed war crimes: a grisly incident where Special Forces personnel decided to sever the hands of dead Afghans for tactical reasons. To be sure it is not an incident of which Defence is particularly proud, but as will be argued the ADO’s policy response contravenes its own stated policy, weakens the public reputation of the Australian Defence Force, does not serve the ADF members involved well, and undermines the important need within a parliamentary democracy for military forces to be both transparent and accountable. Of course, there are many pressures on the defence establishment at the moment, and providing information to the general public about a sensitive operational incident might seem an annoyance. But the true test of an organisation’s character is best measured at such pressure points. This incident suggests a serious need for renewed efforts to ensure the ADO complies with its need to be transparent.

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