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The ADF's rules for public comment

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This post is part of the The ADF in public debate debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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17 September 2012 12:20


This post is part of the The ADF in public debate debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

To consider whether Josh Farquhar is right when he says it is difficult for serving military officers to enter into professional military debate, it is worth analysing the ADF's rules on writing and speaking publicly. This is covered in the Defence Instruction (General) Admin 08-1, Public comment and dissemination of official information by Defence personnel. This 5 year-old document (positively ancient in this information age) notes that although Defence encourages public engagement, 'all public engagement is to be carefully managed'.

There are three reasons current policy is stifling professional debate. Firstly, the process by which Defence 'carefully manages' public comment involves overly centralised clearance of speeches, books, and essays written by Defence personnel.

The process can be lengthy and discouraging. In 2011 a senior naval officer gave a private address to a Lowy Institute naval conference. His speech was brilliant, informative, entertaining and not the least bit controversial. We asked him to submit it for clearance so that we could publish it. Six months later he was still waiting for clearance, and for all I know he may still be waiting.

The second problem is the definition of what information does and does not need to be officially cleared for release. DI (G) Admin 08-1 defines 'official information' as information an officer acquires through the course of being in the military, and which is either 'likely to be sensitive to policy, strategic or operational security issues' or 'may reasonably be foreseen to be prejudicial to Defence's reputation'.

This is an extremely broad definition, and given how cautious Defence has traditionally been to media coverage, it is likely that almost any public discussion could be viewed as sensitive to policy or strategic issues. Combine this with a culture in which, as Josh rightly identifies, there is little reward for articulating an idea in public, and it is possible to understand why so few Defence personnel make public comments.

The third point is that the ADF's regulations on public comment are much more stifling than those of our allies. The US Air Force offers detailed rules of engagement to its personnel to encourage them to blog. US Army public affairs policy details twenty categories of official information that require clearance (ie. opsec, electronic warfare, casualty information, significant military operations), rather than just 'anything likely to be sensitive'.

In fact, US military policy states that 'senior commanders and staff officers are expected to discuss military matters within their purview with news media representatives'. The regulations explicitly state that military students 'and think tank-type organisation members may publish articles without the standard review and clearance process. This is in the interest of academic freedom and the advancement of national defence-related concepts and to stimulate debate on strategic Army issues'.

The reality is that Australian generals have less freedom for professional public debate than Chinese generals. And as Albert Palazzo rightly pointed out, this is having an tangible impact on the ADF's effectiveness as a fighting force.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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