‘What matters is the sanctity of our defence force’: Defence Minister’s solemn response to Ben Roberts-Smith decision

5 Jun 2023

Defence Minister Richard Marles says the damning courtroom findings against disgraced former SAS Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith reveal the urgent need to implement all the findings of an inquiry into Australian soldiers’ conduct in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Richard Marles says the damning courtroom findings against disgraced former SAS Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith reveal the urgent need to implement all the findings of an inquiry into Australian soldiers’ conduct in Afghanistan.

Justice Paul Brereton’s report followed a four-year probe into claims 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murder of 39 Afghans during military operations between 2005 and 2016.

The Brereton Report made dozens of recommendations and led to the appointment of a special investigator to examine alleged war crimes by Australian SAS soldiers during the conflict.

Earlier this year, a former solider became the first to face criminal war crimes charges.

The now-41-year-old was charged over the unlawful killing of an Afghan civilian while he was deployed in Uruzgan Province in 2012.

He remains on bail ahead of his next court appearance.

On Thursday, Roberts-Smith’s defamation action over a string of newspaper articles which accused him of killing four unarmed Afghans spectacularly failed, a judge finding the bulk of the allegations against him were true.

Mr Roberts-Smith has six weeks to lodge an appeal to the Federal Court decision. Speaking exclusively to Sky News from a regional defence summit in Singapore, Mr Marles says the sanctity of Australia and the ADF is at stake and the recommendations of the Brereton Report must be implemented.

“To do anything else would be for us to be judged by history,” Mr Marles told Sky News.

“At the end of the day what matters is the sanctity of our defence force and the sanctity of our nation and the standing of Australia. And Brereton offers us that chance and we must take it.”

 Mr Marles says he does not believe the findings against Mr Roberts-Smith will damage Australia’s international reputation because the incidents were largely historical – and are being addressed in response to the Brereton Report.

“Obviously, the allegations contained in the Brereton Report are deeply serious,” Mr Marles said.

“The Brereton Report is Australia holding itself to account. And it is – in historical terms – a genuinely remarkable piece of work. Which is why it is so important, in terms of navigating this episode and this moment in history, that governments are implementing his report to the fullest extent that we can.”

The Defence Minister conceded the Roberts-Smith finding could impact morale across the defence force, but dismissed claims aired in Senate Estimates last week that allegations of war crimes could impact the ADF’S ability to work with the US military.

“Since we’ve come into office, we’ve had an intense engagement with the United States … this has never been raised with me as an issue by the United States.” Mr Marles said.

“I am satisfied that the ability as a defence force to work with the United States defence force, including the SAS, is absolutely there.”

Mr Marles hailed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s keynote address to the Shangri La Dialogue – the region’s most significant defence summit – which emphasised Australia’s changing role as a key player in achieving ongoing peace in the Indo-Pacific.

“Nothing is inevitable. We have agency … whether or not we walk down paths of war or peace. And we need to be exercising our agency to create pathways for peace. And that’s what Australia will seek to do.”

He said the government had struck a critical balance in thawing relations with China while responding to its significant military build-up, as well as Australia’s own expansion plans under the AUKUS arrangement.

“We are walking a line here and it’s important that we do get the balance right. That said, I think we’ve been really clear on how to strike that balance,” Mr Marles said.

“We want to work with China where we can. We will disagree with China where we must. That has really the mantra of how we have sought to manage the relationship.”

“You can make this happen. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

“At the heart of this is being very clear with China … being polite but making it very clear what we are about, that there are no surprises.”

 The Defence Minister insists the purchase, and eventual domestic construction, of nuclear powered submarines enhanced Australia’s push for peace, rather than diminished it.

“We’re trying to achieve balance. That’s the point here. And we’re trying to get our hard power equation right which allows us to bring capability to bear to play our part in providing for the collective security of our region.”

“But it’s the collective security of our region which is the end game. That’s what we’re about.”

“We could not have been clearer with our friends and allies, with everyone in the region and the world actually – this is the equipment that we are purchasing, and these are the reasons why and this is what we will seek to do that.”

Source: Kieran Gilbert Chief News Anchor Sky News June 4, 2023