Defence Minister Stephen Smith has delivered an official apology on behalf of the Commonwealth government to victims of sexual and other forms of abuse in the military.
His apology, delivered midday Monday to the federal parliament, came after he announced a high-level taskforce, headed by a QC, into abuses in the armed forces going back to the 1950s and left the door open to a future royal commission into the most serious cases.
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Smith apologises for Defence abuse
Defence Minister Stephen Smith formally apologises to victims of sexual abuse in the Defence forces and announces a new inquiry.
Victims could be paid up to $50,000 compensation and cases could be referred to the police.
‘‘To those men and women in the Australian Defence Force or the Department of Defence who have suffered sexual or other forms of abuse, on behalf of the Government, I say sorry,’’ Mr Smith told parliament. ‘‘You should never have experienced this abuse.’’
Mr Smith said that the independent taskforce, headed by Len Roberts-Smith QC, would determine if individuals should receive compensation of up to $50,000, counselling, restorative justice - such as reconciliation or direct apologies from perpetrators - or referral to the police or military police.
The government’s response follows a review into Defence abuse, announced in April 2011, in the wake of the so-called ‘‘Skype scandal’’ at ADFA.
The review, by law firm DLA Piper, received allegations of abuse from more than 1000 people, dating back to the 1950s.
The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, issued a written apology today.
''On behalf of the ADF, I say that I am sorry to those who have suffered sexual, physical or mental abuse while serving in the ADF,'' he said.
He said that the range and number of allegations showed that some ADF members had ''failed to understand the responsibility that rank imposes, that rank is a privilege and not a licence for domineering, belittling or predatory behaviour''.
Accusations of sexism and racism showed that ''some have failed to accept that diversity, diversity of age, gender, race, culture and experience, is a strength in the ADF that needs to be built upon and not torn down'', he added.
Mr Smith said his apology would not impact on legal liability. Compensation paid out under the taskforce would not deprive a victim of the right to seek further redress through the civil courts.
Mr Smith said that a Royal Commission could still be recommended for two episodes of abuse. This includes 24 cases of rape at ADFA in the 1990s and allegations of abuse of young boys at HMAS Leeuwin in Western Australia in the 1960s and 1970s.
‘‘There are very serious allegations of abuse,’’ Mr Smith said of the HMAS Leeuwin allegations.
Mr Smith said he did not support a broad based Royal Commission into the cases of abuse, because it would not resolve individual claims quickly. ''There has to be a focus on giving the individual concerned an outcome,'' he said.
Major General Roberts-Smith is a former military judge and former Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Last year he retired as commissioner of the WA Corruption and Crime Commission. He is the father of Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith.
Mr Smith said he had told his Cabinet colleagues Defence would bear the financial cost of the compensation.
"If any organisation sees on its watch inappropriate or bad conduct, in the end there is a price to pay," he said.
From today, complainants can access information about the government’s response at a free telephone hotline (1800 424 991).