Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned Australians to be ready for "brutal truths" when a long-awaited report into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan is released next week, as the government prepares for "likely" allegations of criminal actions.
Four years since rumours and allegations about the conduct of Australian special forces in Afghanistan were referred to New South Wales Justice Paul Brereton for investigation, the findings are set to finally be made public, with some redactions.
Ahead of the release of the report and in anticipation it will make serious allegations, Mr Morrison announced a new Office of the Special Investigator would be established to examine the findings and, where appropriate, prepare briefs for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
"Given the likely allegations of serious and possibly criminal misconduct, the matters raised in this inquiry must be assessed, investigated and where allegations are substantiated, prosecuted in court," the Prime Minister said.
The inquiry has heard from more than 330 witnesses and covers 55 separate incidents or issues, "predominantly unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also 'cruel treatment' of such persons," Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force James Gaynor wrote in his annual report last year.
A separate oversight panel reporting directly to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds will also be established to deal with any matters relating to culture or other matters related to implementation of recommendations from the report within the Defence Force.
Former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom, former secretary of the Attorney-General's Department Robert Cornall and Vice Chancellor of the University of Tasmania Rufus Black will be on the panel.
Mr Morrison said it would be likely the report would contain "difficult and hard news" for Australians, particularly those who have served in the Defence Force.
He said there would be "brutal truths" that need to be confronted.
"Such conduct must be held accountable in our justice system by Australians in accordance with our justice system and the Australian rule of law, but responsibility must also be taken by leadership to ensure the lessons are learned and these events are never repeated."
Asked why there would be another investigation after the four-year investigation already undertaken by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, Mr Morrison said it was a "continuation" of the process already undertaken.
The report by Justice Brereton is not a criminal investigation, and further interviews would need to be undertaken if matters were to be prosecuted.
The Office of the Special Investigator will sit within the Home Affairs department, and leverage the powers of the Australian Federal Police. It will be set up early next year, if not sooner, Mr Morrison said.
If the report was to be handed directly to the Australian Federal Police, the amount of evidence would overwhelm the processes that are in place, making the office of the special investigator necessary, Mr Morrison said.
Despite some of the allegations dating back to 2005, and the four years spent on the current inquiry, it is likely the fallout from the misconduct could last much longer.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw has said his officers were preparing to investigate the allegations, and had already travelled to Afghanistan to collect evidence on matters already referred to the agency.
He has told reporters that seven- to 10-year time frames for complex war crime investigations are not out of the question.
Senator Reynolds didn't comment on the substance of the report or how many soldiers were identified within it.
"I have absolutely no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that this is likely to be a very difficult and a very distressing time for those impacted by this report," she said, making it clear the government was putting in place support for veterans and serving members struggling with mental health issues due to the report.
The government has legal advice that if the allegations are properly pursued in the Australian justice system, it would mitigate against the possibility soldiers could be hauled before the International Criminal Court.
Senator Reynolds confirmed soldiers who were found to have committed crimes, could face being stripped of their medals.
Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James said there had been significant turnover in personnel in the special forces since the alleged events, and the inquiry didn't cover the whole defence force.
"There are a lot of Australians who served in the ADF in Afghanistan and very few of them including in the special forces have actually been involved in these allegations," he told the ABC.
"It would be very unfair to tar anyone else in the ADF, with this brush and it would be quite unfair to tar most people in special forces and we need to congratulate those whistleblowers in the special forces who said we are not comfortable with some of the things being done in the name of Australia."