ADFA Skype scandal: Smith’s reviews could help defence to change its culture

Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley and Minister for Defence Stephen Smith respond to reviews into Defence’s culture and the Skype scandal. Defence media

Defence minister Stephen Smith has released the findings of a series of reviews into last year’s ADFA sex scandal and the culture of the defence force.

The scandal revolved around an incident in March last year, in which consensual sex between two cadets was broadcast via Skype without a female cadet’s knowledge. Two male cadets who were involved are currently facing criminal proceedings.

One of the reviews clears Commandant Commodore Bruce Kafer of any wrongdoing. Kafer was sent on leave after Smith was heavily critical of his handling of the affair, and the review finds no legal basis for dismissing him.

Another report by law firm DLA Piper recommends further investigation into 775 claims of abuse within the defence force since 1951.

The Conversation spoke with Flinders University’s Ben Wadham about the reviews, and what this means for Smith as defence minister.


The Kirkham Inquiry has exonerated Commandant Kafer, how do you think this will be seen within Defence?

When Minister Smith intervened with the ADFA Skype affair suspending Commandant Kafer due to allegations that the ADFA command weren’t handling complaints fairly, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) were shocked and disgruntled by the intervention of a minister.

Traditionally there is a strong convention that civil and military control are separate. And so the minister in that intervention has moved into defence’s jurisdiction.

However, the claims about how Kate [the female cadet] was treated are not incongruous with previous ways of defence in how it does manage these things. They weren’t surprising.

So the finding that Minister Smith was incorrect in his judgment to intervene, the personnel of the ADF will be satisfied with that and will feel exonerated. They should now look to building confidence with the minister and restoring the integrity of that civil-military divide.

More broadly how do you see Smith’s handling of the scandal and the reviews that followed?

Personally, from my own experience in researching defence, I felt Stephen Smith acted with some conviction addressing what can be an obstinate culture. And this is something that ministers of defence have traditionally been very reluctant to do.

The writing has been on the wall for some time that there needs to be cultural change in the defence force. At the time of the Skype affair, he announced a range of reviews and he also announced the intention to open up full employment for women in all areas of the force.

These sorts of announcements tend to distract from the initial incident and they do tend to diffuse our attention from the real issues. On the one hand, all these reports being announced at once gives us all a lot of reading, but it also has the effect of difussing our assessment of the suite of reviews and the outcomes and recommendations.

However, from my first glance at the material I’m quietly confident and encouraged that the kinds of words defence are using. Issues they are identifying are in line with a genuine attempt at cultural change.

Stephen Smith holds a copy of the government’s “Pathways to Change: Evolving Defence Culture” report. Defence media

This case highlights the differences between what the civilian world expects and what the defence world expects. Is “fixing” defence culture through these reviews possible?

Defence needs to modernise and modernisation is definitely possible. We see it happening at different rates of intensity in different militaries across the globe. Some of the sticking points in the debate have been identified by defence in these reviews, particularly in the “Pathways to Change: Evolving Defence Culture” report. For example, they have shifted from thinking that misconduct is down to a few bad apples. Defence is now arguing that is not the case, and it is down to culture.

That position was a hallmark of defence resistance to cultural change. It now recognises the culture can heighten the potential for inapproprate conduct or for poor reporting or for poor complaint management, or poor leadership.

But while the Pathways to Change Report points towards an authentic appraisal of the situation and an indication of genuine intent to shift that culture, a key question remains which is curcial to the success of that cultural change. That’s the question of independence.

In 2005, the then inquiry into the effectiveness of Australian military justice system recommended there be an independent mechanism to the military justice system. This review doesn’t seem to have focused on that issue, a lack of independence could perpetuate the culture that we’ve seen.

There is a quote by the previous Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), Angus Houston, “I cannot and will not do anything to cause embarassment to serving or former defence officials.”

This highlights the resistance to true independent scrutiny of defence’s practices. That’s the make or break of sucessful cultural change in the ADF.

With the DLA Piper review, how looking back at all these allegations, will it help Defence to improve its culture?

A number of instituions in Australian public life have undergone this sort of scrutiny of the abuse of people within its care or service. And those organisations have benefited from this kind of assessment in hindsight.

Defence needs to truly understand the sorts of processes and cultures that facilitated this kind of abuse and misconduct, and will benefit from taking a look at the different contexts in which they happened.

We have to see that the DLA Piper review is a first step in a process. And now the question is, what sort of response will be made to those people who have been aggrieved by the defence forces?

There was a lack of confidence in the way the review was held, and there was a feeling by some of the complainants weren’t being treated personally, which is very important when you’ve experienced the level of abuse that these people have.

So it’s important now that the government addresses the personal and human needs of the complainants. There needs to be a diverse response which addresses everything from apologies through to compensation and criminal action.