Defence’s head is in the sand, and I don’t mean Afghanistan
Claims of abuse with the ADF have emerged again. Community concern with a Defence culture has again been reignited; the continuing fallout of the ADFA Skype Affair and other occurrences like the HMAS Success and Cerberus sex incidents.
The more things change the more they stay the same. There comes a point when we must call a spade a spade and make a clean sweep. These may be clichés but I am in keeping with tradition.
In 1983 Major General Coates, the commandant of RMC, explained to the Melbourne Sun that bastardisation at the college was not of a ‘general or systemic’ nature. Major General Coates assured us, civil society, that he was ‘certain’ of this.
Six months later the new Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Thorne assured us in The Canberra Times, that bastardisation at Duntroon had been resolved:
Bastardisation has been ingrained in the college over many years and there have also been attempts to stop it over many years. It has gone on in a small and diminishing way, but I am now confident that it will not occur again.
In May 1992 amid more allegations of abuse and bastardisation, Australian Defence Force Academy, Brigadier Adrian D’Hage explained in The Age that:
Once or twice a year we get allegations at the various colleges of unfair treatment by senior officers. We spend a lot of time and taxpayers’ money investigating these to discover they are unfounded. They usually come from disgruntled cadets who don’t meet the high standards that are set and don’t want to go home to mum and dad with a failure…
Brigadier D’Hage explained that bastardisation was isolated, and most of the claims were of “the rough and tumble initiation practices that also occurred at universities”.
In 2005 when Air Chief Marshall Angas Houston filled the position of the CDF he promised that abuse in the ADF would be resolved by the conclusion of his tenure.
In 2011, when the ADFA Skype claims made the news he claimed the event was an isolated incident:
Are we perfect? No we’re not… We have pockets in the organization where there are problems in some of these areas, particularly the misuse of alcohol… (But) I think they’re the exception rather than the rule.
Over the past few days, more allegations of abuse within the Defence have emerged. Civic sensitivities have once again been assaulted with the ABC’s Four Corners accounts of profound abuse.
ABC journalist Geoff Thompson posed the question to the Australia Defence Association (ADA) Executive Director Neil James, himself a 1976 Royal Military College, Duntroon graduate: Do you think there has been a reluctance to report alleged abuse within the military?
James, straight-faced and impervious to public incredulity, closed ranks:
…the real question surely we’re addressing here is whether these were widespread and systemic problems or just the odd isolated incident, or whether they’re the result of a sick culture. Now my own personal experience and certainly the Defence Association view is that they’re not the result of a sick culture.
If there is no culture or systemic pattern of abuse, what have the numerous inquiries over the past 40 years been investigating? What have all those taxpayers dollars been directed toward?
What did the Grey Report on sexual harassment at ADFA in 1998 expose, the 3 RAR Rough Justice investigation report on, or the 44 Senators of the Inquiry into the Effectiveness of Australia’s Military Justice System identify in their assessment of around 150 submissions, and the history of the military justice system? Why are we here now?
These Defence accounts take the phenomenon out of context. It is a sleight of hand, a form of camouflage. The allegations of abuse are discrete elements of this culture but they are located within a generalized culture of insularity.
That’s what military training achieves; it takes the raw material of the civilian and produces the combatant. A combatant takes a specific form, has a specific rationality and a common loyalty. Military personnel are an expression of a unique institution with a unique culture.
The tragic claims of violence, sexual exploitation, abuse in all forms and unfair dismissal with resulting denials of justice are the manifestation of a potential created within that institution. Beyond these discrete incidents is a culture of hierarchy and command, of regimentation, group solidarity and bonding, and distinction – between civilians and military personnel.
When done well it creates a professional combatant that does the things we all choose not to do, when done poorly it has amateurish and tragic consequences.
There is a disjunction between the civil and military society - a culture gap. The clichés of ‘a few bad apples’, an ‘isolated incident’ or ‘the ADF is a reflection of broader society’ are either profoundly naïve or deceptive. The clichés themselves are reflective of the civic criticism that Defence is defensive, secretive and opaque by design. These accounts are a substantive example of the distinction between civil and military society.
Denial generates polarization. The ADF is not a sick culture, nor is it a culture of deviants. The Defence establishment drags us all into the fog when they accuse the civic voice of such claims. But Defence does have a cultural disposition that generates a unique potential for poor conduct. And it may be that things have improved.
Of course these incidents happen elsewhere but their form and effect is unique to each context. To rely on these tropes leaves us treading water: stuck in a rut.
Defence is a unique organization with unique internal contexts located within a changing national and global social context. A genuine assessment must consider both the civil and military influences.
Two of the six Inquiries that are underway are focused on claims of abuse. We are told the inquiries are independent. But it appears that Defence may be missing the mark again. The Inspector General Australian Defence Force (IGADF), Geoff Earley AM is heading one review on the policies and procedures of complaint.
Because The IGADF ultimately defers to the authority of the Chief of Defence, I argue it is difficult to regard this as a independent review. DLA Piper (formerly DLA Phillips Fox) have been contracted to collect and collate claims of abuse, yet it has been explained that Defence Legal are writing the report.
Numerous claims have allegedly been received to date, and Defence Legal are said to be fearful of a cost blowout. No formal terms of reference have been produced nor statement of requirements for the contract are publicly available.
Civil-military relations are a barometer of democratic integrity. That integrity is compromised when the culture gap becomes an impasse. I think we have an impasse.
If the latest round of inquiries is not truly independent, if the Minister cannot encourage the Defence to seriously engage with the principles of openness, transparency, contestability and accountability we shall remain subject to the tyranny of the cliché and its tragic consequences.
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