Daniel Flitton, Deborah Snow June 16, 2012
Secretary of the Department of Defence, Duncan Lewis, left, Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, centre, and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, right. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
PRESSURE is growing for a wide-ranging investigation into claims a culture of sexual and physical abuse pervades the military - but with reservations about the cost of a royal commission.
Defence lobbyists, the opposition and health workers have warned alleged victims should not be forced to wait any longer for their claims to be properly heard after a damning review found complaints stretching back 60 years had been ignored or discouraged.
The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, maintained yesterday that the government was examining the claims and considering a royal commission into the more than 700 potential cases, but refused to commit.
''I don't regard it as inevitable at all,'' he said. ''One of the complexities that we have been grappling with is we've got over 700 allegations that are described by the independent review as plausible.
''There's a fair process that needs to be gone through as well. People who have made the allegations may not want to go through a [royal commission]. People against whom allegations have been made are entitled to put their point of view - indeed, to rebut those allegations.''
The review into sex abuse in the military by law firm DLA Piper was commissioned last year following the so-called Skype scandal, when two male cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra filmed an 18-year-old female cadet having sex for broadcast on the internet.
The report was completed in October after 847 people lodged complaints of abuse said to ''range from extremely serious to (relatively) minor''.
The opposition defence spokesman, David Johnson, told the Herald a royal commission was not a priority.
''We should be thinking about the victims, what they want, and they might not want to go through a public hearing,'' Senator Johnson said.
But he criticised the government for initiating the review into sex abuse in the military, asking people to tell their story but not asking them what they would like done.
The full report remains confidential but the executive summary was obtained by ABC television under freedom of information laws.
The former army chief Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy said the allegations should be pursued ''relentlessly'' but not in a royal commission. ''I'm wary of royal commissions becoming feasts for lawyers,'' he said. ''If you have a royal commission, are they going to look at all 700 or 800 allegations? Or only the most serious? It could run for a decade.''
But the Australian Defence Association spokesman, Neil James, said a royal commission would help restore public confidence and stop the politicisation of the abuse allegations.
He said Mr Smith was not doing enough to stem the damage being done more broadly to the reputation of the defence forces.
''The fact that he didn't point out the context, that the allegations were actually a tiny number compared to the numbers that have served in the defence force over 60 years, that went down particularly badly among former and serving defence force personnel because it made them seem like all of them were responsible for the behaviour of a tiny minority,'' he said.
A doctor and advocate for victims of abuse, Cathy Kezelman, said a royal commission was needed to expose entrenched and systematic abuses in the military.
''There is a myth around that if you dig up negative feelings you cause damage. But what actually causes a lot more damage is if you don't talk,'' she said.
''People can recover but to do so they need the right support and to make sense of their trauma. Collective denial and silencing means people continue to live with their suffering.''