Army Call-Out ‘Political Theatre’ that Raises Legal Questions

New research by The Australia Institute finds that the Commonwealth’s ‘call-out’ of Army Reserves for bushfire relief served political rather than practical purposes, raising serious legal questions around the use of the military.

The Prime Minister today announced the call-out of Army Reserves for bushfire relief would end on February 7, with some reservists ending their compulsory service from February 1. The compulsory call-out of Australia Defence Force (ADF) Army Reserves lasted 28 days.

Key findings:

  • The call-out, which took place without request from the states, raises potential legal problems. For example: Whether reservists have the authority to direct civilians not to use a closed road.
  • The ADF, including Reserves, was already involved in helping with the bushfire crisis, with no suggestion that the Commander of the Defence Force was unable to access the necessary resources and personnel.
  • The call-out could pave the way for deployment of Army Reserves in more ambiguous circumstances where the Commonwealth may consider that it has interests that have priority over the interests of the States and Territories.

“The call-out of Army Reserves was entirely unnecessary to start with,” says Allan Behm, Head of the Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs Program, and former Defence Department Official.

“Dramatic press conferences with military leaders and document signings by the Governor General are political theatre in response to the government’s own inaction and poor publicity, not real support for bushfire relief.

“Beyond being a PR opportunity for the Prime Minister, the call-out furthered the aims of the Defence Minister to raise the profile of the Army Reserve.

“Minister Reynolds is a former Reservist and she should be supported in her aim to raise the profile of the Reserve and improve perceptions of the reserve within the ADF, but an unnecessary call-out does little to further these goals.

“The ADF has a long history of assisting the civil community in emergencies and the procedures that guide its involvement have been in place for decades. The use of the ADF for political purposes should concern all Australians.

“This call-out could serve as a precedent for the call-out of the ADF Reserve in more ambiguous circumstances, where the line between assistance to the civil community and aid to the civil power is less clear.”

The full report, Calling It Out by Allan Behm and Rod Campbell, can be found here.

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