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Commission of Inquiry Releases Final Report into Discipline On Board HMAS Success

Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC and Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Russell Crane, AO, CSM, RAN speaking at the HMAS Success press conference (c) Lauren Black / Commonwealth of Australia

A commission of inquiry has released the final part of a report into serious discipline issues aboard the HMAS Success – a Royal Australian Navy resupply vessel.

Following a national scandal that has included allegations of sailors having intercourse on a pool table in Qingdao, urinating into each others’ mouths, placing bets on the likelihood of sexual activity with new female recruits and choking female sailors during “roid rage”, Air Chief Marshal Houston appointed Roger Gyles OA QC to look into incidents of alleged “unacceptable behaviour” aboard the ship.

HMAS Success was at sea between March and May 2009 as part of a series of ceremonial, operational and training exercises in Darwin, Manila, Qingdao, Hong Kong and Singapore. Incidents of poor discipline were initially dealt with by means of an “Equity and Diversity” education program, which has been criticised as a cover for a fuller investigation, which should have been declared in a more formal manner. Group discussions of appropriate behaviour were later used as evidence which ultimately led to the “landing” or temporary suspension of four sailors.

The first part of the report by the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the problem of excessive consumption of alcohol on board HMAS Success, but concluded that the intake would not differ greatly from that of another ship or group of young people on holiday. Sterner censure was reserved for the culture of silence, intimidation and bullying which covered up and encouraged serious incidents of “unacceptable behaviour” including drug use, damage to property ashore and inebriation requiring medical assistance.

The second part of the report dealt with the Inquiry Officer’s Inquiry. The inquiry was later voided on the grounds that a potential witness on board HMAS Success, WO Harker, had been part of the team charged with producing the report. The Wark Report had been carefully constructed to avoid the involvement of WO Harker in any sensitive areas of the investigation – indeed a legal review held that sufficient steps had been taken to prevent bias – and, later, the Commission of Inquiry largely upheld that view:

“I do not agree with the criticisms made of the conduct of the inquiry and of the content of the Wark report and reject any claim of lack of impartiality or bias by prejudgment. In my opinion CMDR Wark and LCDR Vesper carried out a difficult assignment well in trying circumstances. My conclusions differ from those of CMDR Wark in some respects. That is because the evidence before this Commission was more extensive than the information available to him. There is also room for legitimate differences of opinion about the effect of some of the evidence. I make recommendations to minimise the damage to the reputations of CMDR Wark and LCDR Vesper.”

The balanced report by Roger Gyles OA QC did recommend compensation to the landed sailors for the lack of explanation or public declaration concerning their landing, which led to media accusations that they had played a part in a sex scandal:

“In retrospect, it is apparent that there were three crucial incorrect decisions. The first was to despatch the equity and diversity team, rather than follow the usual path through quick assessment to inquiry. The second was to fail to provide reasons for the landing of the sailors until some time after completion of the Wark inquiry, all the while leaving the sailors in the dark as to their future posting. The third was not to refute the misapprehension linking the senior sailors with a sex ledger or sex scandal of some sort, which was the basis for the questions asked of the Navy by journalist Mr Andrew Greene and for the subsequent media reports.”

However, the recommendation to issue an apology and sum of compensation to the landed sailors was tempered by a reference to the outstanding allegations against them: “Nonetheless, the senior sailors should be called to account for their wrongdoing. Two wrongs do not make a right.”

The third part of the report into the matter deals with issues of military discipline, policy and law. Roger Gyles has recommended a rationalisation of grievance procedures, an increased role for discipline officers, a reduction in the obligation to provide procedural fairness to all members affected by an investigation and a restrained approach to characterising incidents as issues of Equity and Diversity when they might be more properly dealt with as disciplinary matters. The Queen’s Counsel also recommended a clarification of the classified nature of discussions with Equity advisers in the Armed Forces.

The recommendations from the report are as follows:

  • equity and diversity principles and training return to their roots and concentrate on countering disadvantage and discrimination
  • management of complaints of unacceptable behaviour be clearly distinguished from equity and diversity principles in training and in practice
  • steps be taken to ensure that equity advisers and senior equity advisers do not become involved in making, receiving or managing complaints
  • that the making and management of complaints of unacceptable behaviour not overlap with other complaint mechanisms-particularly the redress of grievance system
  • steps be taken to identify and deal with vexatious complaints.

A copy of the full report has now been provided to Australian ministers and senators. The Minister of Defence said on 9th February 2012:

“Adverse administrative action, including termination of service, formal censure, reduction in rank, formal warnings and formal counselling, was considered against 55 individuals, and initiated against 18 individuals who ranged in rank from Able Seaman through to Star Ranked officers.

“Decisions relating to nine of these individuals have been made.  Some of these decisions are subject to the redress of grievance process but the outcomes have included formal censure, reduction in rank and formal counselling.  In two instances no further action was considered warranted.  I am advised decisions relating to another four individuals will be made in the coming weeks.

“The Chief of Navy has apologised to the senior sailors who were landed.  Defence has offered compensation to the senior sailors in accordance with the recommendation made by Mr Gyles in Part Two of his report.  This process is ongoing, with Defence’s position on compensation currently under consideration by the sailors and their legal representatives.”

The publication of the final part of the report draws a line under a highly publicised case which scandalised the Armed Forces and harmed recruitment efforts.

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Editors and staffers from the Law Desk at The Global Herald.

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