Apology Won't Change Brutish Defence Culture

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The apology came as a surprise. It would have been better had the public gallery been filled to overflowing with the men, women and families whose voices had finally been heard, and if more than a handful of parliamentarians had been in attendance. For some the word "sorry" offered vindication. For some it offered hope. But for others nothing could replace lost lives.

They had wished to serve in their nation’s military but instead were subjected to harassment, discrimination, abuse, sexual assault, and rape. No one in power would listen and they were left broken people. Their perpetrators were protected under the military code of silence and misguided mateship. And this allowed perpetrators to continue to maim and ill-treat, to encourage juniors to act the same, and to discredit the Australian Defence Force (ADF) service of all.

Although there have been over a thousand sexual harassment allegations in the last decade do we know of any individual who has been dismissed due to their inappropriate behaviour? How many victims left instead?

Debra Nydrle served with the Australian navy. In 1994 her career and life fell apart when she was raped. Graeme Pilley was a 15-year-old junior recruit at the HMAS Leeuwin in Fremantle when he was beaten and raped by older sailors. He is 60 now and continues to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Charles Williams served with the ADF; his 20-year-old son Jerem, had only ever wanted to serve too. While undergoing basic training at a New South Wales army base in 2003 Jeremy sustained a leg injury. Although medicos would not allow him to train, Jeremy was subjected to a culture of abuse and denigration fostered by his training staff. In a quick telephone conversation with his parents he said he had been made to feel like "scum". The 20-year-old, captive in a toxic culture, despaired, his dream of a military career shattered; he was a failure, and there seemed no alternative but to kill himself.

In the last 10 years there have been 79 suspected or confirmed suicides within the ADF, 44 were in the Australian Army, 24 in the Royal Australian Navy and 11 in the Royal Australian Air Force. The Department of Veterans Affairs also reported 78 former ADF members had killed themselves over the same period. The real toll is much higher.

The Williams family was promised changes to the military culture to ensure other young men (and women) would not be subjected to denigration and de-humanising treatment as Jeremy had been. In February 2006, the Chief of the Defence Force established an inquiry into the learning culture in ADF schools and training establishments to determine whether a culture of harassment and bullying existed and whether irregularities against established policies and processes occurred.

The inquiry was commissioned in response to the 2005 Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report into The Effectiveness of Australia’s Military Justice System. The inquiry team were said to be "widely informed, and importantly, understanding of the nature of ADF training required for successful military operations". They found "no evidence of a culture that supports bullying or harassment … evidence of considerable effort in all training establishments to manage the main risks to the care and welfare of students and trainees …  no evidence that the current system of managing minors is likely to contribute directly to abuse".

In 2011 the ADFA "Skype affair" revealed that not only had poor behaviour continued but that military mismanagement, if not military cover-up, continued also. The Minister for Defence Stephen Smith directly intervened and faced the most extraordinary vitriol from some members of the Defence community. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick conducted an inquiry, her team on occasion subjected to military hostility. Working in concert the DLA Piper Review found 775 allegations of ADF sexual or other forms of abuse since the 1950s.

On Monday 26 November 2012 Stephen Smith announced the creation of a taskforce led by retired West Australian Supreme Court Judge Len Roberts-Smith, QC, to further investigate and to overcome the prevailing "culture of cover-up", and "secure systemic change" within the ADF. The inquiry will have the authority to make compensation payments and to order conciliation, restorative justice, counselling and formal apologies. Serious allegations should be referred to civilian law enforcement.

The inquiry will concentrate on clearing up many of the ignored crimes, initially the 24 rapes at the Australian Defence Academy, Canberra, during the 1990s, which received cursory military treatment much to the further detriment of victims. This is now the time for those within the ADF who observed and lacked confidence to come forward to do so. This is most important because the perpetrators went unpunished and likely now hold middle/senior rank within the ADF. It is also time those who covered up such crimes were also held accountable — we shall see if there is a plethora of early retirements.

The bulk of those who have served and continue to serve are some of Australia’s finest. Nonetheless the reputation of the ADF remains tarnished and the culture must be expunged of inappropriate behaviour. One does not need brutish, abusive, misogynistic, behaviour for the modern, multifarious ADF required to defend this country and national strategic interests. The ADF must reflect the values of Australian society.

The apology was a start but "sorry" will remain an empty word until this inquiry, this taskforce, this Chief of Defence, this Minister, implement the culture alteration urgently needed and the prosecution of those who have thus far escaped accountability; thousands of victims are watching. Even then the lives of so many will remain destroyed. Doubtless the word "sorry" and the promise of monetary compensation mean little to the family of 20-year-old Jeremy Williams.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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