Report of the HMAS "Success" Commission of Inquiry

Having been appointed to conduct an independent inquiry by the Chief of the Defence Force, the Honourable Roger Gyles, AO, QC has presented an excellent report into allegations of unacceptable sexual behaviour and indiscipline aboard HMAS Success. There is no doubt a toxic subculture of unacceptable sexual attitudes and behaviour was allowed to flourish among parts of the marine technical department of this particular ship for nearly a decade.

Mr Gyles is undoubtedly correct in his finding that this occurred because of a serious failure of leadership at all levels on the ship, but especially by the officers of the ship’s technical department and the senior sailors of the propulsion sub-department. There is certainly no whitewashing of this fact in the report. 

He carefully notes, however, that this toxic subculture flourished because the personnel involved — particularly the senior sailors of the propulsion sub-department — had spent so much of their afloat career aboard Success because of the specialised nature of its propulsion systems (as an orphan platform). In effect, most of them had not served much, if at all, on other ships. This was unhealthy in terms of their career and individual professional development, and indeed in their personal social development as well-rounded adults. This point about the subculture being confined to one sub-department on one ship is the key finding in terms of the wider Navy, but one missing in some of the more superficial media coverage of the Gyles Report. 

Two points are particularly worth noting here. 

  • First, Success (a Durance class underway-replenishment ship or AOR) is an orphan platform in the fleet. Built in Australia to a French Navy design it entered service in 1986. The original plan was to build two AORs but the high cost and delays of building the ship in Australia (essentially a pork-barrelling decision by the Hawke Government to bolster local shipbuilding) meant the second AOR was cancelled. As an aside, this government decision also led indirectly to the Westralia tragedy in 1998 because, on cost grounds, this second-hand, less capable oiler was leased instead in 1989 and bought in 1994. The rise of the toxic subculture aboard the propulsion sub-department on Success is therefore yet another disadvantage of the orphan platform problem that has continually bedevilled the Navy with such types of ship.
  •  Second, the toxic subculture aboard one department on Success does not appear to be representative of the fleet as a whole or the Navy as a whole (or even, thankfully, Success as a whole although it did cause some wider problems on the ship). This important fact appears to have been lost in the more sensationalist or simplistic media coverage of the Gyles Report.

A key finding by Mr Gyles is that nearly all the unacceptable behaviour occurred off the ship, during port visits in Australia and overseas, when the personnel concerned were off duty and generally customers in commercial establishments. This is no excuse, at least morally, because the personnel concerned were still representing Australia overseas as members of our Navy. Their misbehaviour overseas, especially in China,  also had operational security implications because it risked them being blackmailed or otherwise comprised by a foreign intelligence service. Furthermore, as a matter of both principle and naval professionalism in practice, it is very disappointing that much of this misbehavior, including criminal damage, public drunkenness, threats of violence, physical confrontations and acts of considerable bad taste in public, was led and/or encouraged by senior sailors. Such senior non-commissioned officers are obviously expected to set an example and to stamp out misbehavior, not publicly encourage and actively condone it and then unprofessionally cover it up. 

Mr Gyles has noted, however, that there are obvious limitations to what can be done practically to stop young Australians binge drinking, and misbehaving as a result, when not on duty. Members of our defence force are recruited from Australian society and, no matter how disappointing at times like this, can often reflect some of the more embarrassing or less savoury attitudes of that wider society. 

Based on the Gyles findings, there would appear to be obvious grounds for a police investigation by the ADF Investigative Service to determine if breaches of the Defence Force Discipline Act have occurred (which, on the face of it, has happened). We disagree with Mr Gyles about taking administrative action to dismiss personnel involved from the Navy under the administrative law provision that their retention is not in the best interests of the Service. This should only happen if no prosecutions under the DFDA are possible. It should not otherwise be resorted to in lieu of disciplinary action, not least because the onus of proof is reversed under administrative law and this is wrong in principle even if the personnel concerned are considered guilty or are guilty. 

With this proviso, the ADA supports all of the report’s reasoning, findings and recommendations. 

Finally, the holistic new-generation navy (NGN) initiative introduced by the current Chief of Navy as a five-year plan to change the Navy’s institutional culture and personnel management processes must be further strengthened. The current Chief of Navy has done much to reform the Navy’s approach to personnel management, materiel procurement and maintenance, and operational availability. The problems aboard HMAS Success long precede Admiral Crane’s command of the Navy and it would be both unfair and a serious mistake of fact to hold him responsible. It would also be an injustice — as has been much of the public scapegoating of Admiral Crane for the current state of the Navy's amphibious fleet (see previous ADA comment)  — because he has worked so hard to prevent and fix such problems. 

The ADA believes there are solid grounds, in fact, to extend Admiral Crane’s command of the Navy (his three-year contract is up in early July) to enable him to continue his modernisation of that Service. The Minister for Defence should seriously consider this action as a mark of his confidence in, and appreciation of, Admiral Crane’s leadership.