Adjournment speech - Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC
Senator the Hon John Faulkner
4 July 2011
Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (21:48): Today, 4 July 2011, marks the end of the distinguished service of Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston in the Australian Defence Force, where he served for 41 years, the last six as Chief of the Defence Force.
The military has always been part of Angus's life, from his very early childhood which was spent on airbases in the United Kingdom where his father served as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. Angus—or Allan, as his parents named him—was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1947. Angus's efforts to join the RAF were thwarted by him simply being too tall, and this rejection was to be a life-changing event. At 20 years of age, and with less than $100 in his pocket, he headed for Australia.
After two years hard yakka on a sheep and wheat farm in Mukinbudin, experiencing floods, drought and penury, Cadet Air Crew Houston—by then and forever more known as Angus—was accepted into the RAAF, where he became a helicopter pilot. He never looked back. In 1980 Angus was awarded the Air Force Cross for his extraordinary skill as the pilot of an Iroquois helicopter during a maritime rescue in the most dangerous and difficult of conditions. The citation reads 'His display of outstanding skill, resolution and leadership undoubtedly provided inspiration for his crew in effecting this most difficult rescue.'
I think those words—outstanding skill, resolution and leadership—say much more about Angus Houston than just his endeavours on that shocking night back in 1979. He has shown those qualities, without fail, in every responsibility he has been asked to fulfil in the ADF. And let us not pretend this has always been easy. In 2002 it was Air Marshal Houston, the then Chief of Air Force, who was asked in his first appearance at a Senate estimates committee about whether he, as the Acting CDF, had informed the then defence minister there was no evidence to support the children overboard claims. I remember that afternoon well, as I asked Angus those questions. No-one should be surprised that, regardless of the consequences, he answered forthrightly and honestly. The headline 'Houston, we have a problem' was inevitable. The no-nonsense approach that day was typical of Angus Houston, who has earned and deserves such a strong reputation for his integrity and decency.
Tonight I would also like to acknowledge Angus's concern and compassion for the men and women of the ADF he has led. This has been clear to all—unfortunately far too often—when we have lost soldiers, killed in action in Afghanistan. The pain for families on their loss is searing, but Angus has always provided comfort to grieving families and grieving soldiers. He knows this to be a critically important and heavy responsibility for our nation's military leader.
In any organisation as large and as complex as the ADF, things will go wrong, and such problems will end up on the desk of the CDF. Angus has the highest standards and the highest expectations of our defence personnel, but, to be fair, they have not always been met. Angus Houston has driven major cultural changes in the ADF. He has not tolerated bullying, bastardisation or sexual harassment. I am sure he would have preferred to have seen current inquiries, such as those into HMAS Success and ADFA, concluded before his retirement, but he can be absolutely confident that his leadership will result in enduring cultural change for the better in the ADF. His commitment to the men and women of the ADF has always impressed me—even his use of language. He would always say 'our people'. He had no higher priority, and everybody knew it.
Angus has won very wide respect within and without the ADF, from all sides of politics and in the international community, where he has been a formidable advocate for Australia's interests. I have seen firsthand how influential and respected Angus was in international forums, particularly with our partners in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I thank him for that strong and effective advocacy. I would also like to acknowledge his close working relationship with secretaries of the Department of Defence and other senior Australian public servants that he worked with as CDF. He respected the Defence diarchy and was committed to making it work. I know too, of course—it goes without question—that he had the absolute respect of all three services.
At a personal level, as Minister for Defence, I always appreciated his wise counsel and his confidences on so many very sensitive matters. I simply say tonight to Angus: I sincerely thank you for your help, support and steadfastness to me and my staff when I was defence minister. It was a real pleasure to work closely with you.
Angus's story is a unique Australian story. I think Australia, his adopted nation, owes him a great debt of gratitude. He has done his country proud. I also thank his family, particularly his wife, Liz, for all her support over so many years of service. I sincerely hope that Angus and Liz will now have time to do all the things together that were never possible over the past 41 years.
Finally, I wish General David Hurley, the new CDF, as well as Air Marshal Mark Binskin, the new Vice Chief of the Defence Force, and all the new chiefs well for the future. General Hurley has big shoes to fill, but I have total confidence that he too will serve with great distinction as Chief of the Defence Force.