Right to Know: Defence stops release of ‘hot issue briefs’

Exclusive: The Australian Defence Force has secretly stopped publishing 'Hot Issue Briefs', which outline incidents of tragedy and misconduct involving Defence Force personnel.

They detail everything from sexual assault allegations and murder investigations, to the discovery of anabolic steroids on HMAS Melbourne and possession of child exploitation material.

In many of the briefs, information identifying the people involved has been redacted.

The briefs were designed to prepare Defence Force leaders and the Minister to respond to incidents which they may be questioned about.

They even include talking points - a list of facts which can be revealed and what to say if asked for further details.

 

He took his own life after his mental health deteriorated.
He took his own life after his mental health deteriorated.

The last Hot Issues Brief published was on February 12, 2018 which related to an Air Force member who was found dead in Rouse Hill, Sydney.

Veteran and military lawyer, Glenn Kolomeitz said the Hot Issues Briefs act as a "mechanism" by which Defence is "held to account" by the Australian public.

"Defence has been consistently criticised for over-classifying information, excessive secrecy in otherwise mundane matters and for excluding journalists from operational activities," Mr Kolomeitz said.

"The briefs force Defence out of its self-imposed 'cone of silence' and subject the Defence Organisation to appropriate transparency and scrutiny."

When the ADF was questioned by The Daily Telegraph why the briefs were no longer published publicly, a spokesperson said: " Information is provided to the Ministers Office through a number of internal Departmental processes.

"Information previously contained within Hot Issues Briefs is available to the public through FOI."This is despite the Defence Force website saying: "In keeping with improved accountability, Hot Issue Briefs have been released publicly since January 2012," yet never publicly announced they had stopped publishing the documents.

By using "internal processes" and no longer Hot Issues Briefs, the ADF are not subjected to publicly releasing the information a week after the Minister of Defence is notified about incidents'.

James’ parents were forced to speak up after their son’s death wasn’t published in the briefs.
James’ parents were forced to speak up after their son’s death wasn’t published in the briefs.

Nearly twenty of the briefs dealt with members of the Defence Force and allegations of sexual assaults against children and child exploitation material.

Another brief refers to a matter it says the media was unaware of - the alleged sexual assault of an army cadet by another cadet. Both cadets were said to be under the age of 16.

Another brief deals with the death of a junior navy sailor who was found dead at Maroubra park by a civilian jogger in December 2011 and said the "incident could attract negative media attention".

In July this year, Royal Air Force electric engineer James Fernandez de Viana, 26, took his own life while still serving, after his mental health deteriorated.

His death would have been known about had the Hot Issue Briefs been still published.

Instead, it was left up to his parents Patricia and Michael to speak up about losing their eldest son.

"Mental health issues in the ADF are pushed under ground and if you disclose depression or mental illness you will be discharged or shunted into a lesser job so you voluntary discharge," Mrs Fernandes de Viana said.

The last message the young serving member saw on his phone was from his mum saying "I love you".

By not publishing the briefs anymore stops people knowing the true scale of the problems, Mr Kolmeitz said: "The question begs asking - is the cessation of Hot Issues Briefs by Defence a return to the bad old 'nothing to see here' days?."

"Defence needs greater transparency and public scrutiny, particularly noting the quantum of national treasure, ie. our tax dollars, spent on that departmental behemoth."

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