Is Neil James Really The Voice Of The Troops?

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Now that the dust from the ADFA sex scandal has momentarily settled, at least two things should be clear: the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith’s enquiries into the matter will eventually deliver the goods for the nation’s journalists, and that as a result we’ll be hearing a lot more from the Australia Defence Association’s (ADA) Executive Director, Neil James.

Inevitably appearing for comment whenever the nation’s media runs a story on the ADF, James has become ubiquitous where military matters are concerned. Aside from comment from the Minister, it’s unusual to see attributed quotes from Department of Defence civilian or military sources on the issues of the day. Instead we have the ADA appearing everywhere from Crikey to Q and A. It’s unclear why the organisation is given so much space for media comment because the ADA functions neither as a union for soldiers, nor as a peak body.

Their website establishes firmly their position in relation to the ADF’s current serving members, (although not without a short puff of self-congratulation):

"While our executive director is invariably welcomed by personnel of all ranks when visiting defence force units in Australia and overseas, or meeting ADF personnel generally, we are not the ADF’s representative professional body nor do we purport to be."

James also said as much on the ABC’s AM program. When asked by interviewer Sabra Lane on 11 April if he was representing the views of Defence chiefs on Russell Hill by calling for an apology from the Defence Minister, he replied defensively: "No, we’re not and that accusation, you know is just annoying. It has been spread by the Minister’s staff." 

Both on the website and in the hundreds of letters he has written to the editors of the country’s newspapers, James insists that the ADA is an independent, public interest watchdog or "ginger group", aimed at stimulating intelligent debate on military matters.

Policy is derived on behalf of its membership, through its "well-refined and speedy decision-making and consultative mechanisms supervised by the board of directors", and is expressed through a policy paper, and the publications Defence Brief and Defender.

More opaque is the process by which James contributes "independent, non-partisan" demands for apologies from an elected minister for executing his responsibilities;  describes the female victim of the Skype scandal as a "bit of a troubled lass"; or apologises for the incident as the behaviour of "frisky" cadets, "fit as Mallee bulls" who need an "outlet". 

There has allegedly been a smear campaign against the young woman involved and Defence personnel have been gagged by the Department of Defence. The ADA has the potential to bring the measured views of sensible, senior officers into the public domain. Hampered as they are by the demands of the chain of command and the need to remain impartial, Defence personnel are unable to prosecute their own case in the media in much the same way as the judiciary. By acting as a conduit for these unheard voices, the ADA could increase the overall standard of debate rather than forcing journalists to rely on off-the-record quotes from serving members and MPs.

Instead we’re left with James’ hectoring insistence that the media is to blame, because they are ignorant of the complexities of national security issues and are likely to label him "sexist troglodyte" for speaking what he sees as the facts. This is a theme repeated in countless pieces of correspondence — lay people, politicians, and especially journalists, don’t get it when it comes to military matters, and should bugger off.

By devolving responsibility for the organisation’s public business onto one man, the ADA has snookered itself. That said, the reduction of the group’s activities is unsurprising when one considers their history. Their website states that the organisation was established in 1975 by former servicemen and trade unionists, broadened during the 1980s into a federal structure with state branches, but subsequently reorganised into a "think tank" outfit.

However, there are some omissions in this official history.

Most importantly, the ADA was established and supported by the National Civic Council, the heir to Catholic anti-communist B.A. Santamaria’s "movement", as part of a broad push to retain influence during the dying days of the Cold War that also saw the establishment of the conservative Australian Family Council. The NCC’s purpose was to insert members into universities, the public service, and other established organisations in order to promote a Catholic-conservative political agenda in Australian society.

Santamaria was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam war and of the corrupt South Vietnamese government, who supported the strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Moreover, the existence of organisations like the ADA was seen by Santamaria as one of his lasting political victories. From his memoir Against the Tide: "However meagre the result may appear to be… I still believe it worth the effort to provide backing and help to bodies like the Australian [sic]Defence Association."

The NCC was responsible for more than just moral support, though, and it’s unsurprising that its financial decline went hand in hand with the reduction of the ADA’s federated structure to a single entity. The issue still remains live, however, with James intermittently battling Crikey columnist Guy Rundle in the letters pages over whether the NCC ever supported the ADA at all.

The other main factor contributing to the decline of the ADA’s proto-union structure was the cultural and structural incompatibility between unions and the military. One current serving member of the ADF with 30 years service history told New Matilda that attempts to recruit defence personnel at one 1985 meeting were "disastrous", because the organisation was inimical to the chain of command and defence culture. "Nobody wanted to do it. I was the only one to turn up to the initial meeting except the sergeant, who took my name and left. There was a perception that joining the ADA was like joining a union, and that was tantamount to mutiny."

James has been left as the tin-rattler for a waning organisation. Along the way he has built the ADA’s public profile around his self-styled reputation as a defence outsider, locked in battle with an ignorant media, an obstructionist Department of Defence, and a series of incompetent ministers.

In his report, Reform of the Defence Management Paradigm: A Fresh View, written in 2000 while he was head of the Land Warfare Studies Centre, James constantly gives "indignation warnings", and assures the reader he isn’t impugning "the loyal and professional efforts of the many able public servants in the Department of Defence", before going on to insist that civilian control over the army should be strictly political, and minimal at that.

According to James’ report, the death of 18,076 soldiers at Singapore during World War II would have been avoided "had our governments listened to expert military advice from 1920 onwards". He goes on to lament, among other things: groupthink, resignation and sublimation among military personnel, who "meekly accept civilian bureaucratic control", and the "informal suppression, exile or retirement of critics". It isn’t a stretch to move from the report to the ADA’s new crusade against Stephen Smith.

While the ADA is now considered a major fixture when it comes to defence comment, the organisation occupies media territory that could be better filled by either military or civilian officials — if only they were given the opportunity. Failing this, the ADA could fill the gap by offering the unspoken opinions of the nation’s servicemen, but the structure of the organisation and proclivities of its spokesman preclude it from doing so.

Small solace, then, that the Federal Government is cutting 1000 extraneous Defence jobs. At least there’ll be room for a positive Neil James comment on an issue like that. 

 

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