It is hardly headline news that male Australian army personnel were involved in unacceptable behaviour and the denigration of women. It is not news that the Australian Army had known of the allegations for almost three years before notifying civilian law enforcement. It is not surprising to anyone who has served with the Australian Defence Force, particularly if you are a woman, that a dangerous sexual undertone has and continues to be present. And, Australians already knew that there was something seriously wrong with army recruiting, training and culture.
What is surprising is that this week the revelations and admonishment were very, very public.
The latest scandal to hit our defence force went like this: up to 100 members of the Australian Army were involved in an internet group which encouraged its members to “bed” as many women as they could; to film sex acts without the women’s knowledge; and to circulate videos which had been invariably enhanced with derogatory comment and ratings on “how good a f…” the woman was. Sometimes the victims’ names, addresses and phone numbers were included with challenges for other members of the most inappropriately named “Jedi Council” to engage in sex acts with them also. Those involved included middle-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers, the highest rank being a Lieutenant Colonel.
A former Chief of Army stated this week that he was unaware anything like this was occurring in the organisation he led for six years. This says a great deal about how endemic and accepted such behaviour was. He must have been the only member of the Australian Army who was not aware of how difficult it was for anyone other than heterosexual Caucasian men to serve their country.
How many times over how many decades have Australians been confronted with the fact that some within the military do not share the core social values and standards they are supposed to protect? How often has it been observed that our military is not truly representative of our society? How many times have Australians been assured with platitudes that behaviour within our military would improve?
For those who have fought long and hard, despite being subjected to the worst kind of vitriol, last week’s admissions and public admonishment were wonderful. Until an institution admits it has a problem and begins to publicly purge itself nothing will change. The actions taken by our current Minister for Defence, Chief of Defence Force and Chief of Army have heralded the most reformist stage in Australian Defence Force (ADF) history to alter a damaged and damaging culture.
Following the “Skype affair” which involved a very junior Australian Defence Force Academy Cadet, filming his sex act and transmitting the video to equally immature cadets in 2011, Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, took a pro-active stance. Enquiries were implemented which exposed long-term and ongoing systemic sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination within the ADF. The human wreckage of military service ranged back to the 1950s. Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, found that one in four women within the ADF had been sexually harassed or worse.
In March this year the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, announced:
“I want the Australian Defence Force to be recognised as an employer of choice; a fair, just and inclusive organisation that sets the benchmark for other employers. Everyone at every level has an active role to play in living the Defence values and meeting this intent.”
In response to this most recent appalling episode, Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison released a harsh YouTube diatribe warning his personnel that if they could not appreciate the role of women volunteers they should “get out” of the army. “If you’re not up to it, find something else to do with your life. There is no place for you among this band of brothers and sisters.”
There is no place for military men like those outed recently. Their behaviour is not that of well-adjusted individuals, but of those who feel they must engage in hypermasculine behaviour lest they be accused of a sexual orientation they fear. They diminish the military service of the majority.
The very public admonishment was music to the ears of not only victims but those who need to feel assured that they can serve their country and feel safe from predators. It must, however, be followed by action.
We have been assured that members of this band of soldiers will face dismissal, demotion and punishment. Justice must be as quick as the convoluted military justice system allows. The military code of silence has enabled men like this to hide behind a brotherhood more intent on protecting the institution than in doing what is right. Names are not necessary, but there must be a follow-up, so Australians can feel confident that change is occurring. It must not be another slap on the wrist, "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" episode. Have we been informed if the ADFA cadets involved in the Skype affair continue to serve in the military? No.
The Australian Army has lagged behind the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the integration of women. For nearly two decades both the navy and air force have had but one category closed to women. Since 1992 women naval officers and sailors have been deployed on warships, and the RAN has led the world in the deployment of women in submarines (since 1998). Only Clearance Divers remained closed to women volunteers. The RAAF has women serving in all capacities except as Defence Force Guards. The integration has historically not been easy. For the RAN particularly there have been painful episodes of poor behaviour but the resulting publicity has driven a shift to greater equity and professionalism.
Within the ADF, the Australian Regular Army reflects our diverse population least. There is too little ethnic diversity, too few women, and only the bravest of individuals have disclosed a different sexual orientation. Currently women make up only around 10 per cent of the Australian Army but this is set to change with the announcement that the combat arms; cavalry, artillery, infantry — and eventually even the SAS — will be opened to women volunteers.
The Army is entering a period of transition never witnessed before. There will continue to be resistance from some who would prefer all-male units remained closed to women and “others”. We should, unfortunately, expect further displays of offensive behaviour. But the time for rhetoric is over. Australians deserve the representative and professional ADF required to undertake the multifarious duties to ensure our security and international commitments.
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