Defence processes need a rethink now more than ever, says Linda Reynolds

Successive attempts to reform the Australian Defence establishment over the past century have done little to improve processes, says former defence minister Linda Reynolds.

‘They’re a bit like herds of elephants sweeping across Defence and never being fully implemented, and never really realising any change before the next round of reforms,’ Reynolds says in a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series.

She tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that in her time as an army officer she developed a strong interest in why Defence went through cycles of totally unproductive reform.

Reynolds was minister for defence industry from March to May 2019 and defence minister from then until March 2021.

Long before that and with no idea that she’d one day be minister, Reynolds did her master’s dissertation in the need for reform in Defence. She looked back to before federation and concluded that no defence white paper had ever been fully implemented, fully funded and actually delivered.

‘And it was really clear to me that a number of trends over time were repeating themselves over and over,’ she says. ‘For example, in terms of acquisition capability, there has never been a golden age of defence acquisition, and there’s always been constant government disappointment and public disappointment in that materiel side of Defence. I wanted to understand why that happens, and how we could possibly break out of that.’

A rethink is needed more than ever today when geostrategic circumstances and technology are evolving, Reynolds says. ‘You need the right strategy, and it needs to be recalibrated regularly. You then need to have the right force structure plan, the capability plan to deliver that.’

But that’s still not enough to deliver the necessary strategy and capability, she says. ‘You then need to have the organisation, the Defence enterprise, which has driven I think many a departmental secretary mad, trying to harness and to do that in harmony with the military side of Defence.’ An additional issue, she notes, is that this can only be done with a sufficient budget.

A key report produced in Reynolds’s time was the 2020 defence strategic update, which concluded that with the technological transformation and militarisation underway in the region, Australia could no longer assume it would have 10 years’ warning time of a major conflict. With that came a force structure plan to re-equip the army, air force and navy and to identify two crucial new operational domains—cyber and information warfare, and space.

She says the pandemic and climate change have brought new threats, including more intense bushfires and floods and cyclones coming further south. Defence must adapt to deal with them.

The ADF’s response to the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 very quickly became the largest ever domestic mobilisation of the military in Australia’s history—exponentially larger than for Cyclone Tracy, says Reynolds. Many lessons were learned within Defence, by her as minister, and by the government. It was wonderful to see Australians understand the capabilities of the ADF and its personnel, not just on operations on the other side of the world but at home showing their passion for their nation.

It was clear, she says, that Australians expected the defence forces to do more in times of very large national crises that were beyond the capability of states and territories to deliver.

Reynolds says she spent a lot of time in the months before the fires with Defence and its chief working through ‘what ifs’. ‘We were expecting a bad season—catastrophic bushfires in the predictions.’

A key part of that planning was a trial call out of the reserves. ‘It was a very good thing we did, because it was a very clunky and slow process, the trial. So, when we unfortunately had to do it for real, it was done very quickly.’

‘There were still lessons that were learned from that process, but it worked incredibly well,’ says Reynolds.

‘Almost to the day, when we closed Operation Bushfire Assist, we opened Operation Covid Assist, and that has now become the largest domestic operation in our nation’s history.’

Reynolds was a senior officer in the army reserve in 2011 when what became known as the ‘ADFA Skype scandal’ erupted. A male cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy secretly filmed himself having consensual sex with a female cadet and live-streamed the video to fellow male cadets. The female cadet was unaware she was being filmed.

That episode ultimately exposed deep prejudices against women in parts of the ADF that were profoundly disturbing, says Reynolds. The scandal, what it revealed and the work done to correct that behaviour shaped her as a female leader, she says.

The then sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, was called in by the defence minister, Stephen Smith, to investigate the episode and to examine gender attitudes in Defence more broadly.

When details of the scandal emerged, Reynolds was attending the Australian Defence and Command College at Weston Creek. She was asked by the then chief of the army, David Morrison, to join his gender diversity board. ‘It was somewhat ironic that I was the only female on the board at the time,’ says Reynolds, ‘but I understand things have progressed a long way since then.’

She recalls that experience as shocking and sad, especially a focus group meeting Broderick organised for female officers at the level of colonel across the three services. Broderick was surprised that some of the women hadn’t turned up and others made it clear that they didn’t want to be there. The commissioner asked why that was so, and one of the women responded: ‘I don’t want to be seen as a woman. I don’t want to talk about being a woman. I just want to put my head down and keep doing my job.’

Reynolds says she’d heard such comments from women throughout her career. ‘But it just dawned on me, what have we done to women in this organisation that they don’t want to be seen as a woman? What is wrong with being seen as a woman? What is wrong with leading as a woman? These are some of the most capable women in our nation, and they wanted to deny their own gender identity.

‘And the more I started thinking about it, and then looking with new eyes at the issue of gender, I realised that to fit in in the military, and in the Liberal Party, I had, like I think probably every other woman, adopted the behaviours, masculine behaviours to get by.

‘And I describe it now as an ill-fitting mantle that you go to work with. You feel uncomfortable, and you’re not quite sure why. And then after a time, you just forget to take it off when you go home.

‘So that completely changed and going through that whole process of understanding unconscious bias, understanding process, and change, and transformation was very empowering for me, because it was then that I found my voice as a female leader.’

Reynolds says a lot has changed since then within Defence. ‘One of the wonderful things now is that while I was the first female brigadier in the army reserves, I’m certain that there are many more behind me and there are now more above me in terms of rank.

‘And the wonderful thing is, there are so many women who are now doing things as women. It is much easier to have a career and have a family and deploy as a woman. There’s an amazing diversity of these most amazing women who are getting opportunities to command forces overseas as well as here in Australia, and they are doing a magnificent job.’

A new issue erupted in 2020, when she was defence minister. After an investigation by the Office of the Inspector-General of the ADF, the Brereton report found credible information that war crimes had been committed by the special forces soldiers in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

That demonstrated that, despite a long reform journey, the ADF still had a long way to go, says Reynolds.

‘That was probably the most challenging issue for me personally, ethically and leadership-wise,’ she says. ‘It was very clear to me that it was going to be worse than most Australians would have thought possible, and certainly it would be incredibly challenging. And I think it was all of that and more.’

The government established the Office of the Special Investigator to work through the criminal justice process. That’s likely to take years, says Reynolds.

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.