Sydney (AFP) April 17, 2011
A spiralling scandal involving alleged sexual and other abuse within the Australian military could force the government into making payouts to victims, the country's defence minister said Sunday.
Canberra has announced sweeping reviews of the military after a female cadet at the nation's military academy told the media that a male classmate had broadcast her having sex with him over Skype to fellow students.
Her allegations unleashed a wave of complaints, some dating back decades, from other former members of the military involving sexual abuse, beatings and other misconduct within the defence force.
"There is a distinct possibility, either in individual cases or more generally, that through the department of defence or through the services, that there is a Commonwealth (federal government) liability here," Defence Minister Stephen Smith said.
"That is why I say we need to proceed carefully, we need to make sure we respect all the rights of the people who are either complaining or raising issues or in respect of whom adverse comments have been made."
It emerged on Saturday that the defence force faces the threat of a class action lawsuit after advocates for one ex-recruit, who claims he was beaten and raped, warned "hundreds" more cases could emerge.
Police are investigating allegations that the man, who was 15 when he joined HMAS Leeuwin in the 1970s, endured beatings and assaults before he left the service within a year with an honourable discharge.
Smith said that every allegation would be thoroughly investigated by an external group of lawyers.
"I have made it clear that the first thing we need to do is a methodical assessment of all those cases to see if anything more needs to be done," Smith told Channel Ten's "Meet The Press" programme.
"I do not rule out in that context any further legal or judicial activity so far as those complaints or allegations are concerned."
But the former foreign minister said he was not talking of holding a Royal Commission into the scandal at this stage.
"There are a range of possibilities. One, for example, would be intense legal work on particular cases, particular individual cases, another might be a use of lawyers or retired judges to look generally at the issue," he said.
"There also is the possibility... of giving people who want to tell their story the opportunity of doing that, and also giving people who may have been involved in such cases, so-called bastardisation or victimisation, giving them the opportunity to express a modern-day view."
Key independent MP Andrew Wilkie, whose support is vital to Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard's narrow hold on power, said he supported Smith in his efforts to crack down on mistreatment within the military.
Wilkie, accused last week of ordering military cadets to salute the 50th anniversary of Hitler's rise when he was a senior cadet at the elite Royal Military College at Duntroon in 1983, admitted he had taken part in the "bastardisation", or initiation, of young recruits.
"I was bastardised. I was a bastard," he said Sunday.
"At the time, I thought it was fine, with the benefit of hindsight, I know that it is appalling and wrong," added Wilkie, who said he never physically or sexually assaulted anyone.
Australia's military has endured negative publicity in recent months, after an inquiry into allegations of misconduct on board the supply ship HMAS Success revealed sailors worked amid a culture of predatory sexual behaviour.
The 400-page report into the Success noted several onshore leave incidents, including the collapse of sailors due to excess alcohol in Hong Kong and public sex in a bar in China's Qingdao as others watched.
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