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Building a band of brothers and sisters

Australian women soldiers. Photo by AFP.
15 November 2013
Australian women soldiers. Photo by AFP.

The Australian Defence Force needs action and not just words to deal with gender abuse, writes SUSAN HARRIS-RIMMER.

This week the Australian Army sacked six of the officers involved in the ‘Jedi Council’, a group which distributed explicit images of women, and an Australian Defence Force Academy cadet involved in the Skype sex scandal.

This is a welcome move. 

But now that the rat bags are out of the way, the challenge is to reform internal systems further so that natural justice can be addressed in shorter time frames.

The experience for the victim can also be vastly improved on what ‘Kate’ described in her ACT Supreme Court victims statement and recent television interviews regarding the Skype scandal.

This will require not just words, but action.

For most Australians, July’s video footage of the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison was thrilling, and it has since had over 1.3 million views on YouTube.

In a no holds bar statement, he told members of the so-called ‘Jedi Council’, senior officers who had shared footage of sexual encounters online without the women’s knowledge, that there was no place for them in the Australian Defence Force. 

“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,” he said.

A screen grab from the Morrison video. Source: YouTube.A screen grab from the Morrison video. Source: YouTube.

But many of us have been waiting for the other shoe to drop as no one was actually being sacked. We were also worried that with the departure of Defence minister Stephen Smith, the political pressure would cease.  

For a long time the ADF has wanted to deal with gender issues in a manner that treats itself as an exceptional institution, and with as much discretion as possible.

The ADF may enact a raft of administrative and policy reforms in response to past scenarios, but conceptually and structurally there has not yet been engagement with deeper commitment to women’s rights as fundamental to the mandate of the ADF. The impulse for reform was forced on the ADF by media, political leadership and long-term advocacy.

The major symbolic outcome of 2011 reviews was a parliamentary apology, delivered by then Defence minister Stephen Smith on 26 November 2012, and given bipartisan support by Stuart Robert, then shadow minister for Defence, Science, Technology and Personnel . The apologies were well-received by some victims according to the limited press coverage, although no victims of abuse were alerted, and so were not present in the chamber.

The ADF’s 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. It represents neither a frank admission of the victims’ perspective and suffering, nor serious failures of governance and current operational risk, nor an acknowledgement that public confidence has been eroded.

This follows the tone of the Parliamentary hearing in March 2012 where sympathetic Parliamentarians had asked whether Defence felt singled out by the media over what were societal trends.

The ADF is not 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 most – though not all – other professions and work and learning environments.

Dealing with the issue is an operational necessity for the ADF as well.

When ADF personnel are deployed on a peacekeeping mission to restore international peace and security under United Nations Security Council authorisation, they are required to understand the security threats to the female population and incorporate the perspectives of women into peace processes to ensure sustainable security responses. 

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 ‘climb out of the trenches’. 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.

It still falls to the Federal Parliament to force a long-term accountability for gender diversity and 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 am first to welcome this with open arms. Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, Chief of Army recently stated at a United Nations Commission for the Status of Women side-event in New York: "we need to define the true meaning of teamwork to embrace a band of brothers and sisters," he said. 

Amen to that.

Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer researches and teaches gender and human rights law at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

A version of this article was also published at The Strategist.   


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team