School cadet training takes John Maxwell back to more innocent times
Older shooters might fondly recall the heyday of school cadets in the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s where armouries were stacked with SMLE rifles and members learned infantry minor tactics, charging through the bush while blazing away with blank ammunition. Best of all, annual camp meant the chance to fire SMLEs and Bren guns with live ammo and maybe also the Army’s then principal infantry weapon the SLR.
In 1975 then-Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam ended all that, withdrawing Commonwealth support and effectively disbanding the cadets, though it didn’t spell their end. In that era of the Vietnam conflict, Labor won office in 1972 with a policy of ending conscription as it appeared to have been most concerned about compulsory participation in some cadet units, particularly in private schools. It wasn’t about the guns as this was still a time when cadets could ride home on the bus carrying an SMLE without attracting the attention of a SWAT team.
The end of Commonwealth support meant the end of the government largesse which had allowed cadet units to flourish – uniforms, rations, transport, training and much more. Then under the new coalition government, cadets were reinstated in 1976 although not as they had been. Gone were the warlike activities which had given cadets a particular distinction from other community youth groups such as scouts, the new government preferring community-based rather than school-based units.
There were other changes along the way but the biggie occurred under the John Howard coalition government in 2001 and followed yet another review, conducted by then-Defence parliamentary secretary (technically the junior Defence Minister) and later Defence Minister and Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson. This set the pattern for what has since followed, including formalising of policies on allowing young unlicensed members access to and training on firearms.
With its record of being tough on guns from the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) to sustain, Howard’s cabinet took a close interest in this issue, considering the matter at a meeting in September 2001. The submission from then-Defence Minister Peter Reith – released in January by the National Archives of Australia under the 20-year withholding rule – was entitled ‘Military-like activities and firearms training for the Australian Defence Force cadets’.
The upshot? Defence would continue to provide cadets with instruction under close supervision on the issue Steyr F88 rifle with access to the Weapon Training Simulation System where available. Defence would draw up a list of military-like activities it considered inappropriate for youth development and supply some innocuous non-firing versions of the Steyr for drill and ceremonial activities, while also assessing the feasibility of supplying dummy red rubber Steyr lookalikes for drill and ceremonies.
Most significantly the government agreed firearms training for Defence cadets could also be delivered through gun clubs using bolt-action .22 rifles under civilian shooting protocols. That would be available only to cadets enrolled for at least 12 months and subject to parental approval, the preferred rifle being the familiar and readily available CZ452. Twenty years on that still seems to be the case.
Defence’s Youth Policy Manual (YouthPolMan in the inevitable acronym) says training in firearms safety and handling, including live-firing of small-arms, is a feature of ADF Cadets youth development programs and one of the features which attracts young people. “ADF Cadets provides the opportunity for participants to experience the safe handling of firearms, including simulated and/or live-firing practices,” it says. “Security policies may impose practical constraints on ADF Cadets gaining access to Defence weapons. The use within the ADF Cadets of Commonwealth procured, owned and approved CZ452 bolt-action rifles in .22 Long Rifle calibre (cadet firearms) provides a means for increasing the accessibility of firearms training to cadet units.”
Defence doesn’t heavily promote opportunities for firearms training for cadets, it’s not mentioned at all on the Army Cadets website, with just fleeting mentions on websites for Air Force and Navy cadets. In Reith’s cabinet submission of two decades ago some interesting issues were raised, particularly because allowing cadet access to military weaponry and even civilian .22 calibre rifles butted heads with the NFA. That of course is the 1996 agreement between states, territories and the Commonwealth which banned semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, introduced national firearms registration and imposed tougher licensing conditions.
Commonwealth Cadet Forces Regulations of 1977, made under the 1903 Defence Act, permitted cadets to carry Commonwealth-owned firearms without the need to hold a licence, which meant back in those days cadets travelling by bus or train with a .303 rifle did so quite legally. How times have changed.
The review of cadets conducted by Brendan Nelson recommended that regime be allowed to continue with minor regulation changes which would’ve permitted cadets to carry and use non-Commonwealth owned firearms for authorised activities at registered rifle clubs without having to meet state or territory licensing requirements. Was that ever going to happen? Certainly not. Reith’s submission said this measure wasn’t in keeping with the intent of the NFA in that it could circumvent state and territory licensing requirements.
Yet this left another problem in that some school cadet units operating under state-sponsored youth programs had ‘no-weapons’ policies and Reith wasn’t about to use Commonwealth muscle to impose different policies and such units would have to miss out. “Given the ‘no weapons’ policy in those state youth programs, sponsored cadet units would not be able to enter into arrangement with registered rifle clubs,” his submission says.
The submission includes a summary of the recommendations which says cadets should be allowed to experience an elementary level of Infantry Minor Tactics (IMT) using innocuous or dummy firearms though doesn’t says what IMT would be acceptable, maybe very basic section drills such as patrolling. But it does list unacceptable activities. Bayonet training wasn’t allowed and neither was assaulting a physical enemy, defending against a physical enemy or ambushing. Paintball and video games depicting combat activities weren’t permitted although there was nothing to stop cadets doing both in their own time.
Older readers may remember how different their own cadet experience was in the pre-Whitlam years, when units practised realistic contact drills armed with fully-functional .303 rifles and blank cartridges, patrolling through the bush and bailing-up pretend enemy at gunpoint. This writer’s unit wasn’t issued with bayonets or hearing protection and this was an era long before violent video games. We were given explicit warnings on the dangers of blank cartridges, warnings which don’t seem to be universally applied to some in the Hollywood movie business.