What is the Navy Hiding?

At 11pm on 28 July last year an Australian Defence Force MRH-90 Taipan Helicopter crashed into waters around the Whitsunday islands.

The Royal Australian Navy had six ships in the area including two helicopter-capable ones, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Choules.

Instead of being ordered to turn around the ships continued to sail in the opposite direction, away from the search and rescue operation, out to sea for at least eight hours after the crash.

What was the mission that was so important? Two helicopter-capable ships out of the navy’s total six in the area needed to be sent to instead of turning around and helping with what at the time was a search and rescue for four air crew still assumed to be alive?

Well, the ships had a photo shoot to attend with partner allies.

Instead of helping with the search and rescue, they were hundreds of kilometres off the coast to take some promotional pictures.

There may well be valid reasons why the photo shoot wasn’t cancelled, and the ships turned around. It was early in the operation, maybe there were too many assets already in the search area, but it’s what Defence did next that’s the issue.

They tried to cover up that the photoshoot ever happened, rather than admitting they sent two of their six ships in the area further out to sea.

These images were initially posted to images.defence.gov.au, but at some point, someone ordered them to be scrubbed from the site completely. There are zero photos of the photo shoot from July 29 available.

Senator Malcolm Roberts asked questions about all of the ships at Senate Estimates, including seeking details of exactly when each ship was tasked to the search and rescue operation.

Defence refused to answer, likely because they were too embarrassed to admit they did not task Adelaide and Choules to the search and rescue operation and it would reveal they were off on a photo shoot instead.

In Senate Estimates last week, the Chief of Defence Force, General Campbell, was evasive again, claiming he didn’t have further details about the unanswered questions from October.

That was until he was confronted with a picture from the photo shoot that the United States Navy had shared, with HMAS Adelaide pride of place in the front row. Defence scrubbed all their photos from the website but obviously forgot to send the memo to the US.

It is a worrying sign that the chief of our defence force is evading questions. Australia is built on a core democratic principle; that civilians are in control of the armed forces. The point at which the armed forces become a law unto themselves is the point at which our democracy will perish.

This defence force chief is too embarrassed to own up to the fact they had ships on a photoshoot. Instead of helping with the search and rescue, the admirals and generals at the top of Defence tried to cover it up. Either they come clean, answer parliament’s questions, or they go.