Vice Admiral David Johnston
Vice Admiral David Johnston says the hearings have shed a light on weaknesses in the justice system. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

Military chief denies justice system is weaponised

Tess Ikonomou March 4, 2024

Australia’s vice-chief of the defence force has denied the “weaponisation” of the military justice system against individual personnel.

Giving evidence at the  Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, Vice Admiral David Johnston said he didn’t think there was an issue with administrative sanctions being adversely applied to people, based on available evidence.

“I’m not saying it may not have occurred and I know some of the lived evidence that’s been presented, which suggests that is exactly what has occurred, but I have not seen it at a systemic level,” he said on Monday.

The senior military officer earlier told the inquiry he was proud of the work to improve a system he acknowledged caused psychological harm to some defence force members.

Signage at the Royal Commission (file image)
 The royal commission is due to hand down its report in September. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

“I have not achieved all that I may have wished to been able to achieve,” he said. 

“It has been a function that I have respected, I recognise the importance of it.”

Vice Admiral Johnston said the justice system was critical to the command function and performance of the military’s units.

He agreed the royal commission shed a light on weaknesses in the system.

“I’m disappointed to hear that my experience and pride in being a member of the Australian Defence Force, and the system that I’ve experienced, is not a shared one by all of the people who have served our country,” Vice Admiral Johnston said.

In his opening remarks of the royal commission’s final block of public hearings, chair Nick Kaldas urged co-operation and accountability to address the issue.

“We are not the cause of the ADF’s troubles. Our data analysis has confirmed that their greatest enemy lies within the ADF itself and its resistance to change,” he said.

“It is apparent from the evidence we’ve uncovered that there are deep-rooted cultural and systemic challenges within the ADF and DVA (Department of Veterans’ Affairs) which have had dire consequences.”

Nick Kaldas (file image)
 Nick Kaldas says co-operation is needed for the military to address cultural issues. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

No longer could the “siloed, fragmented and incremental approach to veteran support be tolerated”.

“No longer can these systemic issues be denied, dismissed, diminished or deflected by those in the halls of power and positions of leadership,” Mr Kaldas said.

Defence Minister Richard Marles and other senior military leaders will give evidence at the hearings, which will wrap up at the end of March.

It will be the final chance for the inquiry to ask questions of senior Defence and government figures about evidence before its final report is handed down in September.

Many of the people who came forward and told their story expressed a “strong sense of disappointment and betrayal” at being let down by Defence, Mr Kaldas said.

“Some are angry or bitter, many are sad, others are shattered, but almost all want to help make it better,” he said.

Support documents from the royal commission
 The commission’s public hearings have started in Sydney and will wrap up at the end of March. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

“They want the defence force to succeed. They don’t want others to have the same experiences they had.”

Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell has already faced questioning at the royal commission.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie will appear at a later date.

The commission has previously expressed its frustration at the slow response from commonwealth agencies to requests for information, as well as claims of confidentiality, parliamentary privilege and public interest immunity.

The final report was originally due in mid-June, but a three-month extension was granted.

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