Close Collaboration with Welfare Coordination Cell- West
Nick Coenen and his team have been doing a great job trying to support those impacted by the Inquiry, more recently with 13 Individuals who have been issued with NTSC letters. Initially they were given 14-day notice to respond to these notices, but arrangements have been made to extend the deadline to 22nd January
The legal representation offered to the 13 individuals by Defence was woefully inadequate with inexperienced service lawyers and no criminal law experience. With the support of a small team set up through SASRT consisting of Wally Walsh, Hon. Chris Ellison, Greg Solomon and me we have been able to put together a team of 13 experienced criminal lawyers to assist with responses to these notices. This is critical because any information provided in a formal response can be used against the individuals in any future prosecution.
We have also arranged to have Senior Counsel examine the NTSC to see if they have the potential to prejudice a fair trial and jeopardise the right to silence. If eventually the civil justice system is going to be the way these matters are going to be investigated and tried before a criminal court, then there is concern that this military admin procedure seems to run contrary to the presumption of innocence and is a hybrid approach somewhere between the military and civilian criminal justice systems.
Legal Representation for those Impacted
Chris Ellison and I have been working with Attorney General, Christian Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and their respective departments to ensure that people affected by the inquiry are afforded competent legal advice and representation under CLAF. We are working with a lawyer in the AG’s office who has been assigned to us to try and reach an agreement with defence on the process and intent for legal representation, particularly for the removal of the need for individuals to demonstrate that they have acted “reasonably and responsibly “under the terms of the Legal Services Directions 2017 Appendix E, as a precursor to receiving a grant of legal assistance. I think that we are almost there as far as that untenable provision is concerned.
Under the Crimes Superannuation Benefits Act 1989(Cwlth), people convicted of an Indictable offence involving a sentence of 12 months imprisonment or more can have the Commonwealth Superannuation entitlement confiscated for a “corruption offence.”
I have been working with senior officers in CSC on clarifying this and Chis Ellison and I have been working with our lawyer in AGs to clarify what constitutes a” corruption offence” and how the Act might be applied. As it stands a person convicted of unlawful killing would not be affected but someone who failed to disclose information or attempted to cover it up could lose their superannuation. If convicted of perverting the course of justice or a similar offence This makes no sense at all and is a serious anomaly. We are trying to find a way of protecting superannuation entitlements for those who are impacted by the Inquiry and to overcome some of what appears to be the unintended consequences of the Act. There is a lot more work need on this issue and it may lead to the Act being amended or re-written.
Media / Social Media.
I have been involved in a number of radio interviews mainly in the WA media – and some print media including front page of the West Australian calling for calm and the presumption of innocence on the day after the release of the Report as well as expressing concern about families and the impact on those who have previously served with distinction in the Regiment. I have also done some TV interviews with similar messaging with Channel 7 and the coverage went national.
I have been consciously not doing anything that makes life more difficult for the Regiment as the CO assures me that the protracted media coverage does impact on those still serving and their families. I have been careful to stay away from criticism of the Government and senior officers as that approach is counter-productive to reaching the best outcomes for everyone involved in the longer term. This issue has years to run and besides there are many trying to fill media space with far too many mixed messages. In radio interviews where there is a longer opportunity to get a message across, I have spoken about the sense of great unfairness and disappointment felt by many over the proposed withdrawal of the MUC because of the actions of a few and I have advocated for its retention. I have not engaged in social media at all.
Links with Other Associations
I have maintained close contact at all times with Mark Smethurst, Chairman Commando Welfare Trust, and Greg Melick , President of the Commando Association and National President RSL. We regularly exchange information and ideas. We have received strong letters of support from 9 Squadron RAAF Association and the Commando Association as well as the Special Forces Engineers Association. I am also in contact with the Wandering Warriors who want to help as much as they can and have pledged their support.
I am regularly in contact with BRIG Craig Shortt, Commander Special Forces on a number of issues and participate in the Special Forces ESO meetings that he organises and chairs in an attempt to have us all in the same tent on major issues.
As a director of SASRT, I am closely involved through the small working group that we have established in setting up arrangement for a legal assistance fund that will likely be needed to assist in topping up legal fees for future legal investigations and court hearings We are relying on contributions from high nett wot individuals to provide the principal funds needed to meet ongoing legal costs. We are also focussing on the welfare needs and possible future financial assistance for those who are likely to be impacted by the ongoing investigation of matters raised in the Inquiry.
I have been in regular contact with Liz Cosson Secretary DVA, Repatriation Commissioner Don Spinks and Commissioner for Families, Gwen Cherne. I recently spent four days in Canberra dealing with DVA matters and IGADF issues and had an opportunity to request the Minister for Veterans to ask his cabinet colleagues to maintain a stance of presumption of innocence in all their public statements. He agreed to reinforce this in Cabinet. A specialist DVA team has now been set up at Swanbourne to fast-track claims for those who are or might be exiting the service. With the withdrawal of Chaplaincy services for those who might be exiting the Regiment I have discussed with Liz Cosson the need for a DVA Chaplain service which she now has under active consideration.
We are considering all measures for supporting those who are involved with the inquiry to assist with monitoring any mental health issues. I am considering setting up a buddy or mentor program to keep an eye on those who need it. I am meeting with the new Interim Commissioner for Veteran Health and Suicide Prevention here in Perth next week to seek solutions to some of these issues.
The Regiment is bearing up fairly well despite the intensity of public commentary and scrutiny. I have maintained close contact with the outgoing CO and current RSM on these matters and will link up with the new CO when he arrives. I have tried to be more visible around the Regiment in recent days. I had a very helpful conversation with Chief of Army at a recent beret parade and he responded to my suggestion to speak to all ESOs gathered in Canberra for an ESORT meeting at DVA in the following week which was important to brief those who were not fully across the main issues.
Peter J. Fitzpatrick AO,AM (Mil), JP
Australian SAS Association