Gender issues in the ADF: the other shoe drops


The announcements over the last week that the Army has sacked six of the officers involved in the ‘Jedi Council’ and the ADFA cadet involved in the Skype scandal are very welcome.

For most Australians, the video footage of the Chief of Army David Morrison in July 2013 was thrilling, and it has since had over 1.3 million views. He was telling members of the so-called ‘Jedi Council’, senior officers who had shared footage of sexual encounters online without the women’s knowledge.

Those who think that is ok to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this army…If that doesn’t suit you, get out.

But many of us have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, as no one was actually being sacked, and were worried that with the departure of Stephen Smith, the political pressure would cease. My assessment of the culture review process was that the ADF has wanted to deal with gender issues on a policy basis that treats the ADF as an exceptional institution, with as much discretion as possible. I thought the impulse for reform was forced on the ADF by media, political leadership and long-term advocacy.

The major symbolic outcome of the 2011 abuse reviews was a parliamentary apology, delivered by Minister Stephen Smith on 26 November 2012, and given bipartisan support by Shadow Minister for Defence, Science, Technology and Personnel Stuart Robert. Both spoke of the ‘great betrayal’ suffered by victims of abuse, and that such violations of trust erode public confidence in the ADF. Chief of the Defence Force David Hurley also issued an apology as on the same day. He said that the number of allegations made to the Review indicated that there must have been some abuse, but the CDF did not acknowledge any of the evidence provided by many years of previous reports. Nor did he acknowledge the aspects of the DLA Piper Review indicating the scale of the problem was much larger than the numbers who made complaints to the Review.

The Pathway to Change document in contrast, was launched with much fanfare, but was underwhelming in content. The language is that of grudging acceptance of partial failure:

Despite our great strengths as an organisation, it is all too apparent that we are not uniformly good. … We have learnt, to our cost, that we do not consistently meet these high standards and, more worryingly, that our culture has tolerated shortfalls in performance.

Most of these failures are personal, but our inability to consistently address them quickly points to flaws and gaps in Defence’s processes and the need to reshape aspects of our single Service and whole of Defence culture. Put simply, we cannot be entirely satisfied with all aspects of our current culture… (emphasis added).

The ADF isn’t alone in facing a culture of violence against women. Defence is exceptional, however, as one of the few environments where victim and perpetrator of violence have to continue to serve together, often in close physical proximity and sometime in training and operational situations where they have to trust one another with their lives. This may mean that the only choice for the victim is to leave the ADF. This distinguishes the ADF from most—though not all—other professions.

At any rate, maybe all of Australia’s historically male-dominated institutions are receiving the message that it is much easier in a digital age to ‘jump the walls’. Why not harness reform efforts to globally agreed standards of gender equality and suffer less the vagaries of the politics of the day? Why not accept the truth—Defence has not been ‘uniformly’ good at putting the rights of women at the centre of operational effectiveness, or gender equality at the heart of the values of a modern warrior. Rectifying these problems is a true test of leadership, because as Clare Burton states in the 1996 review of ADFA, ‘discrimination issues are leadership issues first and foremost’.

It still falls to the Federal Parliament to force a long-term accountability for gender diversity and immediate accountability for gender abuse on the ADF. The Commonwealth Parliament should insist on such an approach and appoint independent gender advocates to monitor progress. Parliament should mandate that gender equality is fundamental to achieving the mission of the ADF as a foundational Australian public institution. The ADF should embrace parliamentary scrutiny and accept external monitoring from independent gender equality advocates.

But there is progress and I’m the first to welcome this with open arms. Chief of Army David Morrison recently said at a United Nations Commission for the Status of Women side-event in New York:

We do need to bond our soldiers to one another and instill toughness and resilience into them. But when this goal is invoked to degrade and demonise women and other minorities it is undermining rather than enhancing capability. We need to define the true meaning of teamwork to embrace a band of brothers and sisters.

Amen to that.

Susan Harris Rimmer is an international lawyer and the director of studies at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University. Twitter: @femint. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. A longer version of this post was published by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific here.

Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Stuart Robert as Opposition spokesman on Defence.