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Monday, June 24, 2024

Ben Roberts-Smith Australian War Memorial display

Should Ben Roberts-Smiths Australian War Memorial stay?

It was Ben Roberts-Smith’s own roll of the dice that has labelled Australia’s most decorated living soldier a murderer and a bully.

Go to Ben Roberts-Smith Questionnaire at bottom of this page

Madonna King asserts that Roberts-Smith wanted to refute those claims, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.

But on Thursday, that risky roll of the dice delivered a hand – via a high-stakes, mega-million-dollar civil defamation battle – that should make us all feel a tad sad.

Not because of Justice Anthony Besanko’s devastating judgment, which closed this sensational five-year-long chapter in a matter of minutes.

Certainly not because of the win gifted to the Australian media, in need of a legitimacy boost. Nor the defamation laws that now allow defences of substantial or contextual truth.

Huge ramifications

We should all feel a bit sad because this sorry saga will be etched into our history as a period that divided our army, turned on its head the nation’s honours system, and questioned the role our men and women play in off-shore assignments.

The biggest loser, no doubt, is Roberts-Smith, the son of Sue and Len, who is a former Judge Advocate General of the Defence Force.

Roberts-Smith is not any soldier; he picked up the nation’s highest award – the Victoria Cross in 2011– adding to the Medal of Gallantry he’d been awarded a few years earlier. He also had a distinguished service leadership commendation.

He really was the pin-up boy for young men and women who wanted to represent our country; a role model who became the 2013 Father of the Year, and on leaving the army in his mid-30s, was courted to give advice to company directors on everything from strategy to good governance.

Eventually, his biography had him running broadcaster Seven Queensland; a top job in a big state with limited media channels.

On Thursday, Justice Besanko wrote a new, devastating chapter in that biography.

And it’s hard to imagine what the implications will be for Roberts-Smith, whose reputation now lies in tatters.

Time for an overhaul

What is clear, though, is the impact of Justice Besanko’s decision, which will – and should – prompt a slew of inquiries.

First up, almost definitely, will be the Australian Army, its recruitment and promotion processes, and its underlying culture.

And yes, we’ve had investigations into that previously, but this decision calls for the roof to be lifted off the home of our defence services. Every room needs to be rebuilt, brick by brick.

In part, that’s because this case has been so damaging to our armed services, with personnel divided into pro- and anti- Roberts-Smith camps.

We saw that in the witness stand, but it looms larger in units across the nation.

Navigating that, and repairing it, will be a massive task.

But our honours system – and indeed Roberts-Smith also took on the role of chairing the National Australia Day Council – is also fit for an overhaul.

Mistakes can always be made, but the legitimacy, authenticity and credibility of our awards system must be overhauled in the wake of this finding.

But perhaps the biggest focus should be on those soldiers who got up this morning, pulled on their boots and went to work with the rest of us in mind; those hard-working men and women who make up our defence force.

They will be tarred with the same brush, by many. And authorities need to change that narrative, as a matter of urgency.

Consummate salesman

Roberts-Smith is a consummate salesman.

Stories about people’s personal interactions with him are plentiful. He’s arrogant, articulate, clever, fit, charming, disinterested, aloof, lacking empathy, enormously caring.

It’s just a matter of who’s telling the stories, that are as conflicting as some of the evidence presented during this defamation trial.

But his ability to spin a yarn is unquestioned.

I’ve seen that a dozen times, personally – in interviews, sharing a stage, and even at parent-student education nights, where he has turned up as an interested father.

He engages people with ease. He is so articulate, he has been offered thousands of dollars to address audiences. And in that role, I’ve witnessed adult men and women cry at the images he conjured, of life on the the battle field.

But he faced a different audience during this defamation trial. Justice Besanko didn’t buy the story he delivered from the witness stand.

For Roberts-Smith, it was a spectacular own goal – and one that suggests it will be very hard to imagine him filling an auditorium, as its star, ever again.

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