(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 12 July and is reproduced with permission.)

By Nicholas Stuart – Canberra

This is a story about a clever private, controlling minister, and cowed bureaucracy. However, let’s begin with the medal, because at least this shows something’s still going right in the military.

Normally the Queen’s Birthday honours list offers an instructive guide to how things work in practice as opposed to the way they’re meant to work in theory. It’s a list of who’s up and who’s overlooked or out of favour. Those receiving gongs that go with the job; those who’ve been in the right place at the right time; an informative guide to what the institution doesn’t value; and just occasionally, genuine recognition of some truly brilliant individual who has done something startlingly good to break through established boundaries.

This year’s Conspicuous Service Medal had a couple in the last category. Congratulations, for example, to Colonel Robert Lording for devoting his private time and effort, year after year, so selflessly to military service. But my attention was quickly drawn to the odd man out, Warwick Naggs, the only private soldier in a list of 101 of the great and good.

Well there’s a story, I thought. And there was. Nevertheless, uncovering the one revealed just how paralysed the system has become. So let’s begin with a basic reporter’s uncontroversial request: “Can I speak to Private Naggs, please.”

Defence acknowledged receipt of the inquiry and followed up a week later with the story-killing information it would not facilitate an interview but might provide written responses. The media team was offering journalism removed by two steps and only after every word had been individually vetted, ensuring an anodyne transcript with any personality well and truly washed out of the transcript. Commodified news, suitable for a totalitarian country like North Korea and indicative of the complete paranoia running through Russell Hill. Why?

The answer is staring us baldly in the face: Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

Kim Bergmann, the experienced editor of Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, last month revealed instructions had ricocheted around the department to curtail engagement with reporters with, he insisted, “immediate and chilling effect”. He’s reported – as I’ve experienced – even the so-called chiefs are unwilling or unable to risk being interviewed lest they inadvertently reveal something (or, indeed, anything). They’ve decided it’s better to lurk silently in the shadow of the Dark Lord’s cloak than risk his anger lest information (or worse – the truth) might accidentally slip out.

Perhaps that’s understandable given the reality of the problems besetting the forces. There’s plenty for the minister to hide: from the small to the huge; from gender-inclusive morning teas; to major equipment deficiencies. In a (still unexplained) move, for example, the army’s entire $2 billion battle-management system was suddenly taken offline. Equipment was pulled from vehicles and rumours circulated about an electronic ‘back-door’ that risked compromising operations. These have been vigorously denied by manufacturer Elbit. Let’s hope there’s no war today. More recently, the entire fleet of MRH90 helicopters have been grounded over safety concerns. Unanswered questions surround the new submarine project with continued indications the project, as originally envisaged, is impossible, suggesting major alterations are vital if the $90 billion project is to make any sense. Let’s hope there’s no war tomorrow.

The danger is without the detail of these complex issues being explained to the media and in the absence of fact, rumour will thrive. If gossip becomes currency the truth is degraded. Citizens in a democracy have a right to know what’s going on and, in the absence of other institutions, journalists remain the only (inadequate) tool to uncover what’s happening.

Dutton wants to succeed and who can blame him? Every politician massages the truth and particularly when they’re more concerned about power than getting things done. Perhaps that old stirring is again moving in his loins as he looks at the current occupant of the Lodge. Maybe he’s wondering if the opportunity to challenge might come again – and perhaps sooner rather than later. But what he’s doing in Defence isn’t just engaging in manipulation. The department is demanding total control of the story, no matter how it happens to intersect with reality.

Dutton’s personal inclinations appear to have become enshrined as part of the department’s method of operations. Self-censorship has slipped into conformity and rigidity and intellectual challenge has been banished. To return to the original point of this column, however, this is exactly why the bestowing of the CSM to Naggs proves some parts of the organisation are still working, despite the all-embracing environment.

Only a tiny snippet of official information has been released to explain how Naggs managed to emerge into the glare of the shining spotlight, but even these details should be remarkable enough to encourage others to challenge the sanctioned way. While on exercise and acting as surveillance troop leader, Naggs was given the chance to implement a few of his own ideas, ones that didn’t necessarily come from approved doctrine. He realised in particular something that big army, in all its slow-moving glory, hasn’t quite caught up with yet: that cheap, easily-procured UAVs can have a dramatic effect on the battlefield. Naggs effectively paralysed his opponents by monitoring, in real time, exactly what was occurring on the battlefield and compromising their offensive moves.

Kudos to him. Brilliant. Even more kudos to those who gave him a chance to shine.

I’d like to tell you more about this. Much more. And what Naggs is doing now, but I can’t. Just like the helicopters, and what the commanders think, and all those other wonderful aspects of this huge institution, the blanket of obscurity has effectively descended. It’s being pulled by politicians afraid of having their inadequacies exposed.

Unfortunately for the body to flourish it needs sunlight. No organisation can grow in the darkness.


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