SYDNEY - Australia should hold a public inquiry into abuse at a prestigious military academy, a long-awaited report into disturbing mistreatment within the defence force found on Wednesday.
Chair of the investigating task force Len Roberts-Smith said two reports tabled in parliament contained "shocking accounts of abuse suffered by people who have served in defence".
One report into abuse at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra recommended a major formal public inquiry examining allegations from its inception to the present day.
"...the only way of ensuring confidence that the allegations of very serious abuse at ADFA can be thoroughly and completely investigated - and appropriately dealt with - is by way of a royal commission," Mr Roberts-Smith said.
Mr Roberts-Smith said complaints about ADFA dated from its inception in 1986 when it was opened to provide undergraduate education and military training to midshipmen and officer cadets.
The taskforce reported a disturbingly high incidence of sexual abuse of female cadets at the academy during the 1990s while the defence force, in a number of cases, did not take appropriate disciplinary, administrative or management action, the report said. It added that it was aware of at least 13 individuals allegedly responsible for sexual abuse at ADFA in the 1990s who were still serving.
A national inquiry into abuse in the Australian military was set up by the government in 2012 after the service was rocked by claims of rape and sexual assault, a culture of cover-ups and a failure to punish perpetrators.
Mr Roberts-Smith said complaints about abuse in the defence force more generally stretched across all services and were from every decade since the 1940s until the taskforce's cut-off date in 2011.
The task force received more than 2,400 complaints from former and current military personnel which it said presented a "disturbing picture of the nature and extent of abuse".
Across the military, there were 594 alleged abusers still serving, as well as 204 individuals in active reserve and 341 in inactive reserve, it said.
Complaints included those of physical violence as well as sexual abuse by more senior members of the military in positions of trust and power.
Relentless and degrading harassment and bullying which targeted people based on their gender, age, race, sexuality and physical abilities as well as the serious mismanagement of complaints of abuse were also raised.
Defence Minister David Johnston said the government would consider the recommendations carefully, but said any accountability mechanism had to go "hand and hand with cultural and systemic change" in the Australian Defence Force.
"The government believes strongly that perpetrators and those who failed to act against them should be accountable but we are also mindful that any process should not re-traumatise victims," he said.
Australian Defence Force head Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said recognising the nature and extent of historical abuse was fundamental to improving how personnel were treated but he said a royal commission was a matter for the government.
"Defence will always respect the complainants' wishes and interests, and while we remain committed to action against alleged abusers, we also have a responsibility to do no further harm to complainants," he said.
Air Chief Marshal Binskin said many of the issues in the reports were already being addressed.
"I believe we are making real progress on cultural change across defence to become more fair, inclusive and respectful," he said, adding that ADFA was at the forefront of this change.