Interview: Andrew Probyn, ABC



ANDREW PROBYN: Andrew Hastie, thanks for joining us. Firstly, to Ben Roberts-Smith. Thirteen days ago, Anthony Besanko found Nine newspapers had established substantial or contextual truth to allegations of murder of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan. What was your reaction to that finding?


ANDREW HASTIE: Thanks, Andrew. It was a combination of sadness and relief. Sadness for the Afghan lives lost and the families who are hurt, sadness for the relationships severed and sadness for the reputations destroyed, both individually and at the institutional level with the SASR (Special Air Service Regiment) particularly. Relief, though, that the cold hard truth, that many of the Regiment have been carrying inside them for many years, is now out in the public domain and it has been validated by a Federal Court Justice.


ANDREW PROBYN: Well, what do you say of your former colleagues who have given evidence against Ben Roberts-Smith?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think they've shown moral courage. They've been brave. They've not won anything out of this, it's been very tough for them, and I honour their work because it's they who have demonstrated that the Regiment has a moral pulse, that the Regiment can self-correct, and it's they who have repudiated the toxic culture and behaviour.


ANDREW PROBYN: Well, give us an insight into some of these people who have given evidence against Ben Roberts-Smith, what are they like?


ANDREW HASTIE: These are some of the hardest and toughest characters I met at SASR during my five years and eight months as a member of the unit. They've seen a lot of combat. They fight tough, but they fight fair. They are people who are larger than life characters, some of them, but others are just very, very professional. Two of them were my combat dive instructors so I spent long hours underwater at a depth of four to six metres, by night in sharky waters, diving with them where a mistake can cost your life. And so, for some of them, I know them very well, I've had to trust my life to them and they to mine as dive buddies.


ANDREW PROBYN: You spent five years in the SAS Regiment, when did you first become concerned about Ben Roberts-Smith?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think there were whispers for some time, and you can read my evidence in the transcripts. But there were obviously rumours and chatter about some of the things that were proven to be true in the Federal Court.


ANDREW PROBYN: The five-year police investigation into Ben Roberts-Smith's alleged involvement in the execution of three Afghan civilians, or captives, has collapsed. Is this five-years wasted and does this have a big effect on those who've been brave enough to come forward?


ANDREW HASTIE: I'm not privy to the internals of that investigation, nor the decision taken to close it off, but I do know the Office of the Special Investigator is active. They're doing their jobs and I'm confident that they will still continue on with the work that needs to be done to bring a finality to this whole sad, sorry, affair.


ANDREW PROBYN: What would you say to Ben Roberts-Smith, if given the opportunity?


ANDREW HASTIE: I have nothing to add from what Justice Besanko has ruled, and you can read his ruling. But I would say to the Australian public that no one is above the SAS Regiment, no one is bigger than the Australian Defence Force and no one is bigger than Australia itself.


ANDREW PROBYN: Should Ben Roberts-Smith keep his Victoria Cross?


ANDREW HASTIE: That's a decision which people will consider in due course. My view is that there are processes for everything, there are reviews for everything and that would be a decision that needs to go through a long process. So, I'm not going to pile on here, except to say that the Brereton Report and Justice Besanko's ruling must be taken seriously. People can't sweep this under the rug and pretend these things didn't happen and that's what we're dealing with now.


ANDREW PROBYN: But some of your colleagues do appear likely to lose their medals, do you support that?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, that's a different question altogether. That's not about criminal liability, that's about moral accountability as commanders and that's something that every single commander in Afghanistan needs to grapple with, in fact, all the way back to Canberra. I was a Troop Commander, I was a Captain in 2013 with the SAS, it's something I have to wrestle with and grapple with. Parliamentarians who sent soldiers to Afghanistan - they need to grapple with it as well, particularly if they didn't ask the hard questions when this stuff was happening. But some of these men I know, some of them I count as friends and I respect them, and I want to see procedural fairness given to them and I don't want to compromise that procedural fairness by commenting either way.


ANDREW PROBYN: Well as you say, you were deployed yourself as an SAS Captain in 2013, a deployment that was marred by civilian casualties and the treatment of some Taliban fighters - must say you were the whistle-blower in that instance. But did you see that as a symptom of a bigger problem within the regiment?


ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I believe in accountability, so it wasn't so much whistleblowing as just accepting responsibility for what happened, as did my Squadron Commander at the time, and that went up the chain at the time. But I think a lot of these problems are symptomatic of the war in Afghanistan, which ran for almost 20 years, which I don't think had a clear strategy, which I think was governed by competing policies - often conflicting policies - and by the time I went over there in 2013, the tactical and the strategic levels were compressing soldiers on the ground and it was a real challenge for us. So, you can understand how there was a lot of frustration and that's partly why I'm here now, because I believe that parliamentarians have a duty to make sure that when they send Australians overseas into harm's way, that they're actually asking the hard questions. It's not a matter of set and forget and just expect things will work out. War is inherently escalatory, it's constantly changing. It's unlike any other sort of government policy - it's not like social policy, it's not like tax policy - it's incredibly violent and it's difficult. And parliamentarians need to do a better job of making sure that our Australian soldiers have clear guidance, are held accountable, and when things change on the ground that the policy settings change with them.


ANDREW PROBYN: The Brereton Report in 2020 found that Australian Special Forces were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan citizens, should the SAS Regiment be disbanded?


ANDREW HASTIE: No, very simply, because the men who stood up and have given evidence about this behaviour, this toxic culture, and the crimes that were committed, they have, in a sense, rescued the regiment. I've had several senior figures in Canberra, one who is now a member of Anthony Albanese's Cabinet, raise disbandment with me over the last few years, this was a live issue. But thankfully, people have stood up and the regiment has demonstrated it's got a moral pulse, it can self-correct, and now the question is, what do we do from here? How do we move forward? And how do we rebuild trust with Australian people? We need men who are prepared to run to the sound of the guns and prepared to take on the most dangerous, risky missions that the Australian people ask of them. There are evil people out there and Australians of all political persuasions need a group of people who are willing to take on the toughest missions. And I've got to tell you, the guys at the SAS, they fight to get through the door first when they're making entry into a building, training for a hostage situation. It's very hard to find those sorts of people and that culture is very, very important to a unit that has a special purpose and those special missions and so we can't afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater.


ANDREW PROBYN: As I understand it, you fear an overreaction to the Brereton Report. What do you mean by that?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think there's a lot of politicisations of what's happened in the Brereton Report and this court case. This is not about left or right, it's not about woke or un-woke, it's not about one media corporation versus another, it's not about toxic masculinity or any other gender take. In the end, it's a simple question of morality, it's right versus wrong, it's the rule of law versus the rule of the jungle. To put it very simply, Australian soldiers do not execute non-combatants who have been taken as prisoners. And if anyone's looking for historical context, let me take you to the history of the original SAS, founded by David Stirling in North Africa in the Second World War. The book Rogue Heroes by Ben McIntyre, he cites an order given by Adolf Hitler in October 1942, it was called the Commando Order. And the order reads like this:

"From now on all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs with or without arms; and whether fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether they come into action from ships and aircraft, or whether they land by parachute."


This is the crucial sentence:

"Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given.”


This is Hitler's order and even Rommel, one of his favourite generals, chose to ignore it because it broke the rules of war. My point is - right back with the Originals, they all thought that was murder, because in fact, after the Second World War finished, they went into Europe looking for war criminals who killed 250 Allied servicemen because of Hitler's order. So, it was murder then, it's murder now, and that's the standard we need to uphold going forward.


ANDREW PROBYN: Afghanistan, as you say, was Australia's longest war, but it was actually one of the least covered. Do you think more media intrusion might have stopped some of the atrocities?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think Defence ran a very controlled information operation, which I think didn't allow for transparency that the media would have brought to the conflict. My view is that the media is an important and informal part of our governance system. We have a lot of government institutions, sometimes they fail, and it's the role of the media to ask questions and bring into the light, things that are shrouded in darkness. Whether it would have prevented war crimes is a question we'll never know, but I think increased transparency is something we must look towards going forward if we find ourselves in another war.


ANDREW PROBYN: On transparency, you've called for the establishment of a Joint Defence Committee, what's the value that that could bring?


ANDREW HASTIE: I think there is no forum for parliamentarians - and I'm not talking about the government, I'm talking about parliamentarians - whose job it is to provide accountability and oversight. There's no forum for Defence. We have an intelligence committee and ironically, members of Parliament have a closer relationship with the Directors General of ASIS, and ASIO and ASD than they do the CDF and SecDef and I think that's a problem. We should be able to ask questions of military strategy, military operations in a classified protected environment and be able to put our hands on hearts to the Australian people and say we've asked the hard questions of the government, especially if we're losing troops in the field and they're conducting combat operations.


ANDREW PROBYN: Lastly, on Kerry Stokes, he's been long been Roberts-Smith's patron. He's given you the cold shoulder in your home state. What's that relationship like?


ANDREW HASTIE: Look, I have greeted Kerry twice in the last year, at the War Memorial at the Last Post and he actually came down to my electorate for a Telethon event in one of the homes that was gifted for part of that charity. And both occasions, we've greeted each other warmly. I don't have any issues. Who he supports is his business and his business alone, and I just run my own race.


ANDREW PROBYN: Andrew Hastie, thanks for your time.