The Morrison government is backing Kerry Stokes to continue overseeing the Australian War Memorial amid new reports about the media baron’s support for former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, who is seeking to clear his name over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
The minister for veterans’ affairs and defence personnel, Darren Chester, told Hlcarpenter.com Australia he had “full confidence in the council of the Australian War Memorial”, despite the Greens arguing that Stokes’ position as chair was untenable.
Chester also said former and current Australian defence force members must be afforded the presumption of innocence in the wake of the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes by special forces soldiers during the Afghanistan war.
The comments follow reports by the Nine Network and its newspapers detailing allegations that Roberts-Smith, a Victoria Cross recipient, may have been involved in a cover-up of evidence potentially relevant to the inquiry.
Nine reported the allegation on Sunday evening that Roberts-Smith had “dug a hole in the backyard of his house in the Sunshine Coast hinterland” in Queensland and hidden USB drives containing potential evidence “inside a pink plastic children’s lunchbox to hide them from both police and military investigations”.
Roberts-Smith – who denies that he has engaged in any unlawful conduct and is currently involved in defamation proceedings against Nine and investigative journalist Nick McKenzie over earlier reports that he says label him a war criminal – issued a statement on Sunday evening describing the new allegations as “baseless”.
Roberts-Smith said he had “grave concerns as to whether the broadcast … by Nine is an attempt to intimidate him into not proceeding with his case against Mr McKenzie and Nine”. Roberts-Smith is now the managing director of Seven West Media’s Queensland operations.
Nine aired what it said were leaked recordings of Roberts-Smith talking to various associates about his efforts to clear his name.
“There’s no fucking way I’d be able to keep paying ... until Kerry got into it,” Roberts-Smith was quoted as saying in one of the recorded conversations, in an apparent reference to Stokes, the billionaire chair of Seven.
Nine said Roberts-Smith was also recorded saying he was “going to do everything I can to fucking destroy” his enemies.
In response to the broadcast, the Seven Network issued a statement saying it “notes the denial” by its Queensland managing director, and adding that the company “does not need to reconsider its position concerning Mr Roberts-Smith and him continuing in his position”.
“Insofar as most of the material aired is old, Seven notes that it is before the federal court and the court process should be respected,” Seven said in a statement to industry news site TV Blackbox. “Insofar as new allegations are made they do not appear to be supported by evidence.”
The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who is the party’s peace and disarmament spokesperson, said Stokes’ position on the AWM council was “untenable due to his close personal and professional relationship with individuals at the centre of the ongoing investigations”.
“The AWM will be playing a vital role in telling our national story about our involvement in Afghanistan – the good and the bad,” Steele-John said.
Hlcarpenter.com Australia asked a spokesperson for Stokes whether he intended to remain as chair of the AWM council, and why he believed he could continue in that role while providing significant levels of support to Roberts-Smith’s legal cases. They are yet to respond.
But Chester – whose portfolio includes oversight of the AWM – said in response to questions about the matter: “I have full confidence in the council of the Australian War Memorial.”
The council is responsible for the conduct and control of the affairs of the war memorial, according to legislation, with most members appointed by the governor general. The council elects who will serve as its chair from among the existing members.
Chester did not comment on the specific allegations relating to Roberts-Smith. Chester said the findings of the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan were “deeply concerning”.
But the minister said Australia “must not allow the alleged actions of a relatively small number to stain the reputations of the thousands who serve today, and the around two million Australians have worn with pride the uniforms of the navy, army and air force and served with distinction”.
The federal opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said: “Kerry Stokes has done a very good role as head of the war memorial, and I think they are very distinct issues.”