Improving Military Discipline

Some of us are better at following orders than others. I was 19 years of age when I was given the DCM, the ‘don’t come Monday’, when I was training to be a priest, because they didn’t think that I’d be able to fulfil my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They were probably right, I guess, at the end of the day.

In the civilian world, even in this place, not to follow rules can sometimes be an advantage. It can stimulate innovation, support independence and encourage enterprise. But, in a military setting, discipline and obedience are absolutely critical. They can be matters of life and death. To stay safe and do their job, every soldier, sailor and aviator has to know that their comrades around them will do exactly what they’re required to every time. Without that knowledge and that certainty, coordinated action and resolve can break down, mistakes can be made, and people can be placed in serious danger. There is no space for rugged individualism in an effective combat unit.

In the ADF, our serving men and women maintain order through a carefully structured disciplinary system which, since the 1980s, has consisted of three parts. The courts martial deal with the most serious offences, with legally trained officers acting as arbiters of fact and law. The summary authority system, with its three tiers, tackles less serious service offences following non-judicial but courtlike procedures. And the disciplinary infringement system maintains day-to-day order with respect to minor infringements whilst imposing modest punishments.

I’m privileged in my roles in this place to have the opportunity to hear from many ADF personnel firsthand. As chair of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; chair of the Coalition Policy Committee on Defence and Veterans Affairs; and an active member of the ADF Parliamentary Program, I get the privilege of speaking to soldiers, sailors and aviators on a regular basis. In this place, we talk about reforms and efficiencies and enhancing effectiveness. But many of our service men and women say it a little more plainly. When it comes to the military discipline system, ADF members say that the disciplinary infringement scheme is great and they say that the summary authority system as it stands is useless. Nobody likes it, so, guess what? They don’t use it. I’m told that there has been more than a halving of cases coming before this tier of the discipline system since 2008. The Royal Australian Air Force, I understand, has largely avoided the process altogether. Members of the RAAF would probably have you believe that’s because they never do anything wrong, but that’s probably unlikely.

When something doesn’t work, our service men and women find a way. In this case they are voting with their feet and pushing matters to higher or lower authorities, depending on the seriousness of the case. Put simply, the summary authority system operates on court-like procedures, but it is conducted by ordinary officers without legal training and without much in the way of legal support. Its decisions are constantly subject to appeal to higher authorities. Officers tell me that, understandably, those operating in this court therefore approach it without much confidence and with an abundance of caution. There are reports of officers holding dress rehearsals of court proceedings to ensure no errors are made in procedure, while others read from the procedure manuals at great length during hearings to ensure every detail is present and correct. All of this is to avoid undermining the authority of officers and taking up even more time with a lengthy review process. Where a case has significant implications for a unit’s discipline, or can involve relatively serious consequences for the service man or woman involved, then such an overabundance of caution is necessary. However, for relatively minor matters of discipline, it is too complex, too time-consuming and too risky for all parties.

There is, however, a much faster, simpler and more efficient system for less serious breaches of discipline. The disciplinary infringement system, managed by discipline officers and trusted and preferred by defence members, is at every level. It doesn’t involve court-like procedures. However, it does give service men and women the opportunity to be heard and imposes only fines, losses of privileges and reprimands. Cases can be dealt with in just a matter of days. As it stands, this system deals with matters such as short absences from duty, falling asleep on guard or failing to comply with a general order. ADF members tell me that it could accomplish so much more.

The bill before the House abolishes the complex and distrusted subordinate summary authority, and expands and improves the disciplinary infringement system to give ADF members the option of being dealt with by it for an expanded range of matters. The bill introduces the role of senior discipline officer and provides that these senior discipline officers can deal with more serious matters, such as longer absences without leave, insubordinate or insulting language, causing a disturbance, being drunk on duty, unauthorised use of military vehicles or the negligent discharge of a weapon. These are doubtless more serious breaches of discipline, but they do not require a full court process to be resolved, nor as isolated cases do they require imprisonment or discharge to follow. As such, with the proper oversight of the unit’s commanding officer, these matters can and should be resolved quickly and simply. This bill will formalise the process for allowing that to take place. However, a disciplinary system needs not only efficiency and effectiveness but also to enforce a set of standards which keep pace with changes in society.

Like any other part of our nation, the military is not immune to the increasing and shifting influence of technology in our lives. Like young people across our society, serving members of our ADF use social media to communicate with each other and with friends and family outside the services. Like so many others, they’re exposed to not only the many benefits of social media but also, in all too many cases, the dangers that it can bring. Although the vast majority of our serving men and women are absolutely upstanding professionals, under the pressures of an intense and sometimes dangerous environment, a small minority choose to abuse, bully or harass others online. We’ve seen evidence of such behaviour in recent years through the alleged involvement of serving ADF personnel in online forums such as the Instagram page State Sanctioned Violence in 2020 or the Facebook group SNAFU in 2017, which have not only glorified criminal acts but also posted abusive and violent material about women and minority groups. Such behaviour is fundamentally at odds with the values of the ADF, and it is deadly to the morale, discipline and order of a fighting unit.

Worse, the consequences of bullying and abuse can be devastating for the individuals who experience it. In the inevitably close quarters of a ship or a military base, there can sometimes be no escape. Former soldier and paratrooper Anna Maria Lang has spoken out recently about her post-traumatic stress disorder and her attempt to take her own life. She ascribes these experiences not to the pressures of service themselves but to the sexual discrimination and bullying that she experienced from some of her fellow soldiers. The availability and anonymity of social media makes abuse like this not only easier but more difficult to trace. However, where it can be tracked down and a culprit identified, the ADF must have access to serious sanctions to stamp it out and to hold those who perpetrate it to account.

This bill introduces two new service offences related to cyberbullying. One makes it a service offence to use social media or another online service in a way that is offensive, threatening or intimidating, or to harass or humiliate another. In order to ensure that harm is minimised, it creates a further service offence of failing to comply with an order to remove material that has been deemed to be cyberbullying by a service tribunal. By creating these offences, this bill allows this conduct to be dealt with by the summary authority or court martial system, with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment for either offence. Since 2015, this government has ensured that, in the civilian world, those who have experienced cyberbullying have a channel, the eSafety Commissioner, to help them get offending material removed and the perpetrators held to account. With this bill, we’re extending some of the same protections to our serving men and women and helping to show the seriousness with which the ADF treats this issue.

At a time when Australia faces an ever more complex and threatening international environment, it’s important to remember what it is that ensures Australia’s national defence. US general and founding father George Washington said: ‘Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.’ Whilst small in number, the ADF is one of the most disciplined and professional armed forces in the world, and I’ve had the great privilege of seeing many of these men and women serving in many different parts of this world. In a region where potential threats to our country could come from much larger nations with greater material resources to command, it is discipline, our material and the professionalism of our service men and women that we will depend on for our national security. By streamlining the ADF’s disciplinary processes and bringing them up to date with the world around us, this bill will contribute to maintaining our Defence Force’s soul and keeping it a formidable opponent to be reckoned with.

I want to close by acknowledging the work done by the new minister for veterans and defence personnel and his staff in bringing this bill and the way that he’s consulted the backbench committee, which I chair. I want to acknowledge the work of the previous minister, the member for Gippsland, and his incredibly hardworking staff as well. Both ministers have done a lot of work on this bill.

This bill has been a long time in the making. I have spoken with the senior officers who have guided and steered the preparation of this bill. If I remember correctly, this bill has been about eight years in the making. It has been somewhat complex, and a lot of work has gone into it.

I want to acknowledge the work of Senator McLachlan, who is an ex-colonel of the Australian Army. He was a legal officer, and we had the privilege of being able to get the wisdom of his experience in reviewing this bill. So I’m a little concerned to hear some members opposite say that this is a bill that should go off to the Senate for further review. This bill has been a long time in the making. There’s been such a considerable amount of work that’s been done on this bill not just by the ministers but by the ADF themselves, and it has the support of the government. I urge all members in this place to support the bill.