We’ve got your backs, Dutton tells Diggers

Ben Packham The Australian Newspaper’s Foreign Affairs and Defence correspondent reports 8th April 2021. Peter Dutton says his top priority as Defence Minister is repairing an ADF-wide morale slump that has followed the Brereton report, reassuring the nation’s serving men and women that “the government has their back”.

He said Defence’s response to the damning war crimes report would “continue on”, but he was focused on ensuring Defence personnel were ready, with “every asset available”, to meet heightened national security threats. Mr Dutton will meet 3rd Brigade personnel in Townsville today (Friday 9th April) in his first major visit to a Defence facility since taking over the portfolio.

He will also visit the army’s 5th Aviation Regiment, which operates army helicopters.

“I think morale has been down and I think there is good reason now for it to be rebuilt,” he said.

“And the commitment that the government has got to the Australian Defence Force, not only financially but morally, is very important.”

“My message is we are getting back to business. That business is more important than ever, and that business is to keep Australia safe and secure.”

Mr Dutton said he had told the Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell and the secretary of his department, Greg Moriarty, in their first meeting following his late-March appointment, to provide all available support to the troops and get major procurement programs back on track.

“There are priorities that we will focus on which will make it very clear to our troops that the government has their back,” he said. He said Australia faced “a very uncertain time” in the years to come, amid rising Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and a profusion of “grey-zone” threats.

“Nobody believes that we are on the brink of war or anything like that,” Mr Dutton said.

“But there is a period of uncertainty and there is a new front now with cyber, and with non-state actors who have Australia permanently in their sights … that is a war that Australians don’t necessarily see each day, but which we are engaged in constantly.”

Mr Dutton said Australia‘s relationship with the US was “essential, and more important than ever”. “And the capacity that we each bring to the relationship is quite remarkable,” he said.

“Having said that, the relationship with ‘Quad’ partners, with others in South-East Asia, with our other Five Eyes Partners, they remain absolutely essential and critical relationships as well.”

Major General Paul Brereton released his war crimes report nearly five months ago, alleging up to 19 soldiers had murdered 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan, findings that shook the foundations of the ADF. Mr Dutton said General Campbell’s work on a plan to implement the Brereton inquiry’s findings was “all under way”, and he would not rush the process.

The new Office of the Special Investigator was examining whether criminal charges could be brought against alleged war criminals, “and that is properly left with that process”.

“The biggest priority for our country now is to prepare for whatever this century holds,” Mr Dutton said.

He said he was also focused on ensuring key defence procurements were tracking well, amid delays and cost blowouts on the $90bn Attack-class submarines and $45bn Hunter-class frigates.

He said he was “listening more than talking” during his early weeks in the portfolio, requesting detailed status reports on all major procurements.

“We need to make sure the government’s investment of $270bn-plus over the next decade is rolled out on time, and on budget, and we need to correct any problem in those programs,” he said.

“It’s important because we need every asset available at the disposal of the … ADF.”

With more than 500 ADF former ADF personnel taking their own lives in the past two decades, Mr Dutton said the government remained open to a royal commission on veterans’ suicide. But he said the Prime Minister was also determined to have a standing royal commission to address the problem in an ongoing way.