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ASASA NATIONAL CHAIRMAN’S REPORT 2021

"Challenges are what make life interesting overcoming them is what makes life

meaningful" - Joshua J Marine


The challenges have come thick and fast over the past year as the Association and the Regiment have experienced one of the most difficult periods in its history, only eclipsed by the dark days in 1996 following the Blackhawk tragedy.


COVID 19 has been with us for 20 months now affecting some states more severely than others but limiting all of us and our families from enjoying the freedoms to move around freely and maintaining normal relationships with close family and friends. Issues arising from mental health problems are already apparent particularly in states with the most severe lockdowns.


For the past 10 months we have also lived in the shadow of the Brereton Report and the public scrutiny that this has entailed. This has been followed by the intense interest in the defamation trial that has enmeshed current and past

members of the Regiment appearing as witnesses in court- an unfamiliar and stressful environment for most veterans. The trial has been adjourned until later in the year. I will have more to say about these matters later in this report.


Despite all the attention that the SAS Regiment has experienced in the past 12 months, no one can take away from the distinguished service and achievements of those who have served in it for over 64 years since its inception as a company

in 1957. At a time of global and regional uncertainty, it is critically important to the defence of the nation with its unique and significant capabilities. It provides an unparalleled first line of defence against a variety of threatsto the nation and

this should never be underestimated.


IGADF

it is now five years since the IGADF commenced its enquiries into alleged misconduct by special forces on operations in Afghanistan. These enquiries were painstaking and thorough and, in many cases, caused enormous distress to the

many individuals who were exposed to a confronting level of interrogation. In many cases the stress caused by these events spilled over into the families of those who were being scrutinised by investigators with some coming close to breaking point. A similar level of stress was felt by those who had raised concerns about events and activities in Afghanistan and were compelled tojustify why certain matters had been raised by them in the first instance. For those who had the moral courage to speak up, the pressure has seemed to come from all directions and has been unrelenting.


The Brereton Report

On 19th November 2020, the IGADF investigations culminated in the release of a redacted version of the Brereton Report to the public. It is now acknowledged that the public presentation of the findings of the report was poorly handled because of the way many assumptions were made about the potential guilt of individuals. Predictions were also made about various forms of punishment such as removal of medals from individuals and the Meritorious Unit Citation (MUC) from all the 3000 Special Forces veterans who served in Afghanistan.


Fortunately, after an outcry from the veteran community and the public, the decision about the removal of the MUC from Special Forces veterans was subsequently overturned. There was an overarching reaction to the release of the Report from the veteran community and the public at large that the “presumption of innocence” which underpins the rule of law had been disregarded. At the time of the report being made public, no charges had been laid against any individual as part of any accepted investigation and prosecution process. An Office of the Special Prosecutor was set up by the Government for just this purpose. Sadly, public commentary through media reporting since this time has often completely lost sight of the principle of the presumption of innocence and this has angered the veteran community and caused additional grief for the

individuals and their families of who have been impacted by the Brereton findings.


An Association of Influence

The Association has a broad reach across government, government departments and agencies and other Ex-Service Organisations. (ESOs). Important links have been established with Ministers’ offices such as the Minister for Defence, Attorney General and the Minister for Veterans and direct contact has been made with Ministers directly when the occasion has warranted it. There have been regular exchanges with designated staff within ministerial offices in addressing many complex issues that have arisen as a consequence of the IGADF Inquiry.


Strong links have also been established with the Department of Defence and DVA dealing with specific veteran issues. In DVA, the Association is represented at three levels, on the ESO Roundtable (ESORT), the Operational Working Party

(OWP) and the Younger Veterans Forum. With COVID travel restrictions, many of the meetings have been held as online forums rather than face-to-face meetings. The Chairman represents the Association on the ESORT, and I am indebted to John Burrows and John Newton for their hard work with the OWP and Younger Veterans Forum respectively. The Association is also a founding member of the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations (ADSO) and as Chairman I am a director of that organisation which is a peak body for a number of the major national ESOs. Another important link has also been made to the Independent Oversight Panel which is responsible for developing an implementation plan for the Minister for Defence in response to the IGADF Inquiry. The connection between the Association and Open Arms in Western Australia and nationally has also been important for providing dedicated support and assistance to individuals and families who are dealing with mental health and other issues.


Other regular links and important contacts are made with SOCOMD through special forces ESO meetings and with links across to organisations like the RSL, Legacy, the Commando Association, the Commando Welfare Trust, Wandering

Warriors and Special Forces Engineers. Significant programs to assist Special Forces veterans after their discharge are being developed in one of these forums and new initiatives will be announced in the near future.


The most important link for the Association is with the Regiment and the SAS Family consisting of the SAS Resources Trust the SAS Auxiliary and the SAS Historical Foundation which all work in concert with one another to achieve the

best outcomes for veterans and their families Fall of Afghanistan The collapse of the civil government and the occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban has impacted badly on SAS veterans and their families and have a caused a number to question the value and relevance of their contribution to the war effort in that country. Those who lost loved ones in the war were particularly impacted by the finality of events in a country where so much had been sacrificed during past deployments. As would be expected, there were elements on the Regiment on the ground until the last flights out of Kabul providing assistance to those who had been trapped in Taliban occupied territory. The fall of Afghanistan will live long in the memory of those who fought there and the families who sacrificed so much over many deployments for more than 15 years.


Support for Individuals and Families

The Association has been at the forefront of providing support for individuals and families impacted by the Brereton Report. A significant number of people have left the Regiment this year, with many seeking discharge. I have been in contact with several of the individuals and families to check on their welfare after their discharge from the Regiment. Inside the military system, people and families are generally well supported but when they leave many of their welfare and othersupports are terminated. I have been working closely with the Support cell at the Regiment to ensure that there is some form of handover between the military system and outside support agencies for those individuals and families who seek it. This remains a work in progress and will continue to be refined.


One of the major initiatives has been to engage with DVA to secure the appointment of Peer-To-Peer Support Staff to provide a gateway into Open Arms and other support networks for individuals and families. The Peer Support workers have been selected on the basis of their previous experience with mental health issues and links to the Regiment or other Special Forces units. Six Peer-to-Peer workers have been engaged across Australia with two allocated to the SAS Association in Western Australia with four to Wandering Warriors to cover both NSW and QLD with the specific charter of providing dedicated support to Special Forces veterans and families. I have also set in train a proposal to have a chaplain appointed to the Association and this proposal is still working its way through the system.


I am grateful for the support of state branches of the Association that have always been willing to step up when asked to support individuals needing assistance within their jurisdictions. The work of our advocates and pension offices capably led by John Burrows also play a key role in supporting individuals and families with their DVA claims. They have been ably supported by Shirly Mooney and April Tajic, our two welfare officers whose services are often in demand, particularly to provide support to families.


The Media

Finding an effective way of dealing with ongoing media interest in the Regiment has been akin to navigating through a minefield. In the early days after the release of the Brereton report it was more a matter of trying to provide a balanced viewpoint and to call for calm to counter some of the overreactions that were occurring in relation to the Report’s findings at the time.


Since then, it has been more matter of trying influence or counter stories in the media to deal with a consistent pattern of negative and highly inaccurate stories about the Regiment and its culture. Where appropriate journalists have been spoken to about their reporting of stories that contained inaccurate or inflammatory material. On several occasions multiple stories providing a more balanced point of view were provided to alternate media outlets to counter the negative impact of earlier commentary. At times decisions were made to allow some stories to simply run their course rather than give the story any credibility or extend its life in the public domain. Association members were asked to not get involved in media commentary on IGADF matters and for the most part they have shown admirable restraint on that front.


Social Media

At the AGM the National Executive is going to consider a national media policy that a has been expertly complied by Rick Moor, the ACT Branch President who has a strong background in this area. This has been developed in response to some posts on SAS linked websites and other media comments that have gone beyond reasonable criticism of decisions made in conjunction with the Brereton Report and related matters. There is no intention of trying to censor social media posts but to make it clear that those responsible for websites and those making unacceptable comments are, as the result of a recent High Court decision, potentially liable as a publicist or contributor for any post that gives offence or impugns the reputation of another person.


Feelings ran high for many veterans over two decisions following the release of the Brereton Report, namely the removal of the MUC and the disbandment of 2SAS Squadron. Following these decisions there were some social media posts that could have resulted in significant legal consequences for the individuals concerned and those responsible for the administration of the relevant website. It is important to remember that the damage that can be done to the Association and the Regiment from ill- considered posts can be quite significant. They have the potential to cause a rift between the Association and the Regiment on some occasions. We all have an obligation to temper the language that is used and the tone of social media posts to ensure these difficulties do not arise. The draft media policy will be distributed to members when it has been approved by the National Executive.


Defamation Trial

The defamation action taken by Ben Roberts- Smith VC against Fairfax Media has received a considerable amount of national media coverage and has created several legal issues for those who have received subpoenasto produce materials

or give evidence at the trial. Witnesses have been called to appear for both sides of the court action which has been partially heard and adjourned because of COVIP 19 movement restrictions.


The Association in conjunction with the SAS Resources Trust (SASRT) and the Support Cell at the Regiment have assisted those called to appear at the trial by providing them with appropriate legal representation to ensure that their rights are protected and that they do not run the risk of self-incrimination. In most cases the funding for this advice has been provided by Defence with lawyers sourced locally and it has largely been an issue of contacting those affected and ensuring that they had been properly briefed.


The trial is set to resume in November/ December this year and arrangements have been made though SOCOMD and the Regiment to continue to have facilities and people on the ground to guide individuals through the court process. The trial is expected to last several more weeks and the outcome could have a significant bearing on any potential prosecutions for criminal matters in the future.


Defence Legal Assistance Arrangements

Considerable time and effort have gone into making sure that anyone named as a person of interest in the Brereton Report will receive Commonwealth funded access to competent legal advice and representation. Initially there were several

concerns about the Commonwealth Legal Financial Assistance Scheme (CLAFS) which contained a provision that anyone seeking a grant of legal aid would be required to demonstrate that they have acted “reasonably and responsibly” as a pre-condition for obtaining legal assistance. This was regarded as an overreach by the Commonwealth and finally after submissions had been made an assurance was obtained from Defence Counsel that this precondition would not

apply for those seeking assistance for IGADF to matters.


Subsequently concerns were raised about the potential for Defence to be conflicted as the party responsible for approving grants of legal aid for those impacted by IGADF because of its involvement in policy setting for the war and any administrative or other issues that might flow from that.


An approach was made to the Attorney General’s Department to establish a separate approving authority for all IGADF grants of legal aid. I am pleased to say that a new scheme for approving grants has now been established within the Attorney Generals Department called the Afghanistan Inquiry Legal Assistance Scheme (AILAS) which provides for an independent approval process for all future grants of legal aid for actions arising from the IGADF Inquiry. Defence will be responsible for meeting all payments for these costs. This is a significant outcome for those who might potentially face prosecution at some future date.


Superannuation Entitlements

Another issue that has surfaced for those impacted by the IGADF Inquiry is the potential for those convicted of an indictable offence (12 months imprisonment or longer) to forfeit the Commonwealth component of their military superannuation. This came to light from a review of the Crime Superannuation Benefits Act 1989 (Cwlth) which refers to a corruption offence which could lead to the loss of superannuation even for somebody who failed to report a crime if that person was deemed to have “perverted the course of justice” as defined in the Act.


Concerns about this issue were raised immediately with the Attorney General’s Department because of the potential and unintentional consequences of this Act which was designed to capture offences involving corruption within the public service, not war crimes. I am pleased to say that there seems to be no appetite by the Government to punish individuals or families through the forfeiture of military superannuation, however more work needs to be done to give intent to this by either amendment to the Act or through clarification of its operation. This remains a work in progress.


SAS Resources Trust

The SAS Resources Trust does some incredible work supporting past and present members of the Regiment in their hour of need where they require some form of respite from the daily pressures of their lives. The support provided to the widows and children of those who have died on operations is quite extraordinary and the Trustees take a genuine and personal interest in the education and general well-being of these families.


The Trustees are prominent professional people, many of whom have no military background that are completely committed to the Regiment and the beneficiaries that they assist it has been a privilege for me to be involved as a trustee of the Trust by virtue of the National Chairman role and to witness the great quality of its work firsthand. I am member pf the Legal Subcommittee of the Trust and greatly indebted to my fellow committee members, Grant Walsh, The Honourable Chris Ellison, and Greg Solomon supported by Trust Executive Chris Johns for the enormous amount of time and effort that they have devoted to assisting in matters involving those caught up in the IGADF Inquiry. As an indication of the importance that they attach to this, the Trust has established a fund and secured A significant donation to provide legal support when needed to those impacted by the IGADF Inquiry.


Financial Position

The Association is in a sound financial position and has the funds to be able to cater for most contingencies. The five years that I have been in the role of Chairman, I have followed a policy of steadily building up the financial reserves and capacity of the Association to a point where we now no longer seek capitation fees from branches every year. This has enabled branches to function more independently and efficiently and hopefully to reach a point where they will be no longer reliant on membership fees as a source of income. The ultimate goal is to have every veteran who ever served in the SAS Regiment to be a member of a branch, provided of course that they wish to be a member.


I am extremely grateful to our anonymous donor who wishes to remain that way, but I would like to offer my sincere thanks for the financial support that has been provided to the Association from this generous source. On your behalf I would like to thank the two treasurers that are faithfully served the Association in my time as Chairman namely Mike Smith and Dale Whelan. Both treasurers have provided great care and attention to the management of our finances, and I am indebted to both of them for their support and professionalism. The finances that will be presented to the AGM and the accompanying audit report reflects the fact that we are in a sound financial position and that our affairs have been well managed by our respective treasurers.


Constitutional Issues

Slow but steady progress has been made with getting our constitutional affairs in order. Since its inception, the Association has been registered as a not-for-profit organisation incorporated in Western Australia under the Associations Incorporation Act 2015 (WA). Since the national body operates across stateboundaries, it needs to be registered as a national entity rather than being recognised only in one state jurisdiction.


Initially it was decided to incorporate the national body as a Company Limited by Guarantee under the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC). A draft constitution has been prepared that would enable this to occur however, it would involve a further level of bureaucracy which would involve another layer of administration through the relevant reports to ASIC on an ongoing basis with recurring administrative costs. Subsequently investigations have led to another option which is for the national body to apply for registration as a Registrable Australian Body which would have the effect of enabling it to remain incorporated in Western Australia but have the capacity to operate across state boundaries. An application for registration as a Registrable Australian Body is now in the process of being filed with ASIC to achieve this.


Our current constitution will still need some amendment to bring it fully into line with the Western Australian Act and to cater for this change of national status. In the coming months state branches will be asked to hold meetings of members

to approve the necessary changes to the constitution.


In another important development, the Association has now been endorsed as a charity for tax purposes by the Australian Taxation Office and is now registered with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit’s Commission (ACNC). The next step will be to apply for Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) Status which means that all donations to the Association would become tax-deductible.


Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides

The Association took the stance that a Royal Commission into veteran suicides was not the best option for dealing with the complexities surrounding the sad and highly emotional problem of veteran suicides. In view of the number of reports and inquires that had taken place in the recent past into this issue, the amount of money that will be spent on a Royal Commission could have been put to better use now to provide much needed support for high-risk individuals and groups particularly younger veterans who had involuntarily separated from military service. Royal Commissions can be very blunt instruments that often cause great damage to individuals and organisations and take time to produce their findings. There is also no certainty that any of the recommendations will be acted on expeditiously by the government of the day. Further delays in addressing the problem will also occur as attention shifts to the Royal Commission and away from the current suicide issues and this hiatus can also result in a higher number of suicides deaths.


Despite these concerns and misgivings about the efficacy of a Royal Commission, it was the politics of the day that ultimately resulted in the decision being made to establish one. The Association, Branches and individual members now need to shift their focus to ensure that our views form part of the deliberations of the Commission by making submissions and where appropriate making an appearance in person to present their views. Details have been sent to branches and members to advise them how they can make submissions before the Commission commences its public hearings estimated to be early next year. The terms of reference of the Commission have also been made available.


Advocacy/Pension Officers

The Association is fortunate to have a number of its own advocates and pension offices including those undergoing training in this role under the watchful eye of our experienced advocate, John Burrows. These advocates play a critical role in assisting our veterans with managing and processing their claims in the DVA system.


At a time when advocacy is becoming far more complicated with many veterans now entitled to compensation benefits under two or three of the existing acts namely, the VEA 1986, MRCA 2004 and the DRCA 1988. The complexities of providing advice on these claims under multiple acts is occurring at a time when a there is a disappearing cohort of advocates, often age-related, which has created significant challenges for veterans particularly those seeking advice for

higher level claims that go on appeal to the Veterans Review Board (VRB) or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The blame for this can be sheeted home directly to the Commonwealth Government over its delayed response to the Productivity Commission Report recommendations in relation to important reforms for advocacy. In recent times the Advocacy Training Development Program (ATDP) which is now the cornerstone of the advocacy regime has stalled, with the ATDP Governance Board made up of highly experienced advocates being recently disbanded and the management of the program now lingering within DVA.


The method of operation of the ATDP hinges now on whether it will only employ paid advocates or elect to have a mix of paid and volunteer advocates. DVA has stated that it intends to continue to support volunteer advocates, but key questions remain over who will manage and support these advocates and their ongoing training. Sadly, the delays in implementing clear policy guidelines have resulted in advocates who are currently practising or have commenced training or waiting to commence training walking away.


There Is a further complication with liability protection for advocates under the Veteran Indemnity Training Association (VITA) which is underwritten by DVA and is in the process of being closed down in anticipation of a ATDP taking up

responsibility for liability protection for advocates.


The Association has been at the forefront of demanding urgent action in this area particularly given that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of claims being launched by Afghanistan and Middle East veterans. A policy failure and the lack of a clear implementation plan in this important area will cause significant detriment to the younger cohort of veterans who desperately require the services of an advocate pension officer in processing and managing their DVA claims. The Association will have to remain vigilant in this space and demand clear policy directions that spell out a clear future for advocates and pension offices under the ATDP system.


DVA Claims Management

Despite the best efforts of senior management within the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA), the Department remains in crisis over the management of the significant backlog in the processing of veterans’ claims. The level of staffing within DVA has been reduced over time, based on the assumption that the number of veterans that would need support would continue to decline. This proved to be a fallacy as DVA now has 323,000 clients which is way above previous forecasts. This resulted in the need for staffing levels that were well in excess of the agreed budget for DVA which then had to seek approval for the hiring of temporary staff to meet a significant surge in claims. The number of claims has tripled over the past three years and as an indication of the increased numbers, claims submitted between June and December 2020 have jumped from 44,300 to approximately 50,000 claims. This has resulted in claims now being delayed by 12 to 18 months with similar wait times before a delegate is even appointed to process the claim.


This is a highly unsatisfactory outcome and the DVA leadership is patently aware of the seriousness of the situation. The government has finally responded in the recent budget by significantly increasing the staffing levels within DVA. The hiring of new permanent staff is underway to replace in excess of 1000 short-term contract staff, many of whom have limited claims handling experience particularly in the processing of claims that are eligible under multiple acts. Unfortunately, it is going to take a considerable amount of time before things return to any form of normality in the way DVA is able to process claims. This is causing enormous frustration and at times anger amongst veterans and their advocates who are often dealing with serious medical and mental health issues.


This is a matter of great frustration to the members of the ESORT and the OWP advisory groups who are constantly seeking updates at their regular meetings with the DVA Leadership on what has now become an overburdened claims management system. It is important that members understand the current deficiencies of the system and do not take out their frustrations on the pension offices who are doing their best under very trying circumstances.


Vote of Thanks

Throughout the difficult times we have experienced and the complex issues that have to be dealt with, the role of National Chairman has been made more bearable thanks to support and wise counsel of the National Vice Chairman (Martin Hamilton-Smith), Charles Stewart, (National Secretary), Dale Whelan, Treasurer and Rick Simpson (Editor Rendezvous and Website) as well as the State Presidents and officeholders who have always been ready to lend their support when needed. Thanks are due also to our Pension and Welfare Officers for the many hours they put in supporting both past and present members of the Regiment.


I would also like to thank and acknowledge the support and encouragement that I have received from the Commanding Officer and RSM SASR, as well as Nick Coenen and then Bruce Willis from the Support Cell West of the Regiment for their genuine interest in the wellbeing of those leaving the Regiment and their appreciation of the role played by the Association within the SAS family.


Passing Parade

With each passing year it is with sadness that we recall the names and the memories of those comrades who have died during the year. This year they are 16 in number, and their names will be faithfully read out at our AGM followed by a minute of silence. Their names will also be recorded in Rendezvous.


Their passing is a matter of great sadness to those of us who served with them and knew them. We remember them fondly and, on your behalf, I would like to express my deepest sympathies to their families in this time of great sadness and grief.


Farewell

As this will be my final report, I would like to thank all members for their encouragement and support during my time as National Chairman. The role has not been without its challenges. By taking up the fight and overcoming many major problems that have arisen, it has been possible to achieve some very positive outcomes in a time of great difficulty for the Regiment, and the members and families who are very proud of their connection with it.


Along the way there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed but also humbled in reflecting on the highly important role that the Association plays in the lives of so many who have impacted in different ways by their service. There is a lot more work to be done and I have great confidence that Martin Hamilton-Smith will be an exceptional Chairman. His background in politics as a Minister in the South Australian government and the great empathy that he has with those who have served in the Regiment will stand him in good stead in the challenging years that lie ahead. I wish him every success and encourage all members to get behind him and the Association as it deals with the many challenges that lie ahead

Who Dares Wins


PETER FITZPATRICK AO, AM (Mil,) JP

Chairman

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