Failure to look after our defence personnel adversely affects recruitment and public trust.
Australia stands a fair chance of losing itself down a chasm between rhetoric and action. We’re all responsible for it, not just politicians. We need to get serious fast about recognising the condition and then working out what to do about it. It might point to a flaw in our make-up that has implications for our democracy.
Why? Because the widening gap causes anguish for too many of our fellow citizens and it’s about time we bothered to notice.
Take, for example, the outpouring of sympathy over the fate of the 645 men on the HMAS Sydney that followed the recent discovery of the sunken vessel on the seabed off the West Australian coast.
Later, dignitaries, relatives and senior naval officers dropped wreaths over the site, and, just before Anzac Day, a memorial service was held in the Anglican Cathedral in the fighting ship’s namesake city. Who wouldn’t be moved by that?
But think for a moment how those 645 men would be turning in their graves if they knew how the Navy and the Commonwealth Government — in our name — has treated survivors of the 1964 Voyager disaster.
For those who don’t remember, the HMAS Voyager was a destroyer commanded by a captain well known for being fond of brandy, even on the bridge. During a night exercise off the NSW coast he took the wrong turn and cut across the bows of the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne. The Voyager was cut in two and 82 men lost their lives.
The Navy shirked all responsibility and blamed the Melbourne‘s captain. Two successive royal commissions were required to establish anywhere near the facts and to clear his name.
All these decades later, 34 damages claims by the Melbourne crew are still before the courts and there are seven outstanding appeals. Two claims by descendants of Voyager crew who died remain unresolved. Thankfully, through mediation and negotiation, 50 cases were resolved just last year. Can you believe it?
We should all feel ashamed, especially those comfortable denizens of Canberra responsible for the long-running saga. They act in our name. You can be sure that their lifestyle and superannuation are guaranteed, though not the mental well-being of the men involved and their families.
Imagine those 645 men from the Sydney coming back for a day. After a brief reunion with their loved ones, you can see them heading for the capital and tearing strips off those responsible. Their cry might be, “For heaven’s sake, do your duty! Do it as we did, and as our colleagues on the Voyager and the Melbourne did.”
That might be enough fury for a day — that is, unless you told them about the crew of the HMAS Murchison patrolling the seas around the Monte Bello Islands, off the north-west coast of Western Australia, on October 3, 1952. Its crew were ordered on deck, wearing standard navy uniform — shorts, thongs and no shirt — to witness Britain’s first detonation of an atomic bomb nearby. (See Jonathan Dart, “British nuclear test photos challenge official findings”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 2008).
In 2006, when health care assistance was finally granted to all participants in those bomb tests, two of the Murchison‘s crew, Ken Palmer and Michael Rowe, applied. They were promptly told that they did not qualify because they had not been on the vessel and, anyway, it was too far away from the blast to be affected. To be classified as a “participant”, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) required applicants to prove that their vessel had been within 10 kilometres of the site.
Oddly, a royal commission into British atomic tests in Australia, held in 1984-85, claimed that the Murchison was 112 kilometres away from the blast. Now Palmer and Rowe have produced photos they took on board their vessel with a Box Brownie, which show not only the nearby mushroom cloud but also themselves and the crew scrubbing down the ship after the explosion — again, in shorts. Bear in mind that airborne radiation from the blasts was detected as far away as Townsville and Rockhampton.
Now, a class action against the Federal Government is being prepared, which could involve up to 500 people.
Ken Palmer told The Sydney Morning Herald: “It would be nice to think the Government would finally come out on our side for once.”
You also wouldn’t want to mention to the men from the Sydney the story of Scott Nichols, the former Australian Air Force corporal who was one of only two survivors of the 2005 navy Sea King helicopter crash on the Indonesian island of Nias. Nine Australians were killed in the crash, while on a humanitarian mission after the Boxing Day tsunami, because their aircraft had not been properly maintained. No one, by the way, has taken responsibility for that.
Nichols revealed to the Sydney Sun-Herald in March this year that his life had been turned into hell by Department of Veterans’ Affairs pen-pushers making him “jump through hoops”. Bureaucrats had held up final payment of his $300,000 compensation, telling him to fill in papers proving he was in the helicopter when it crashed.
He has already had to leave the Air Force because of his injuries and has dropped out of his profession. Nichols received his money only because of publicity and the Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Alan Griffin, who after meeting him, stepped in and expedited matters.
A grateful Nichols said, “I told him that the DVA need to realise that they are dealing with real people who are hurting and not just numbers and forms.” (See Frank Walker, “Survivor fully compensated”, Sun-Herald, April 13, 2008).
That says it all, and the problems aren’t just in the Navy.
They’re right across Australia’s defence system and into our intelligence agencies, with each callous incident affecting recruitment and public trust more than one would care to think.
So, as the genuine fervour that Anzac Day has aroused in us quickly recedes for another year, it might pay to stop and think for a minute.
Why? Simply this: lest we forget why it was that fellow Australians laid down their lives for us.
— Warren Reed is a former intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).