The timing couldn’t have been more apt. As the political debate this week was consumed by issues of gender and sexism, the Australian Defence Force announced it had uncovered yet another scandal involving bad behaviour towards women – one that puts the Skype incident into the shade.
Army chief David Morrison fronted the media to reveal that three ADF personnel had been suspended, more were likely to be, and a further 90 on the “periphery” of the affair were being investigated.
The police were involved. Lewd images and text had been circulated on the Defence email system and the internet. Morrison described the material as “explicit, derogatory, demeaning and … repugnant”.
Many in the public must think - here we go again. Will the ADF never learn? In 2011 all hell broke loose after a sexual encounter between two cadets was secretly broadcast for the titillation of other cadets, watching in another room. The girl did not know she was being filmed.
That incident happened at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Defence Minister Stephen Smith made it clear he was deeply unhappy with the handling of it. Multiple inquiries were set up, including into past abuse and ADF culture. The consequences are still working their way through the system.
Morrison has admitted this latest scandal is worse. It involves middle-ranking officers who have served many years in the force, rather than newly-recruited cadets. It’s also been going on for a long time, with a large number of personnel caught up in it.
It started in 2010, but continued after all the adverse publicity about bad culture which accompanied the Skype revelations. It’s hard to understand how those involved did not get the message, or at least fear detection.
As inquiries have found, sexism and sexual and other abuse have been endemic in the ADF for decades. In some cases personal harassment has made the lives of victims a misery and left lasting scars.
After the Skype affair the ADF declared confidently that it was getting its cultural problems under control. That challenge is not simple. Remember there used to be very different, quite lax attitudes in the military to sexism. Locker room talk and pictures that might have been shrugged off then are completely unacceptable today.
Former secretary of the Defence department Ric Smith says, “What’s changed for the good is that social attitudes have become more intolerant of sexism, and that the ADF badly needs women and women want to serve in it.
"On the other hand, social media adds a new dimension to poor behaviour. The challenge for the ADF leadership is to change the men they train and command.”
Notably, in this latest scandal Minister Smith is leaving more of the running to the military. He dismissed any suggestion that feet had been dragged in the releasing of information, and said that Morrison had wanted to go public on the affair as soon as he could, and he had agreed with this view.
“I also strongly supported the view that it was much more practical for the Chief of Army to be at the frontline on this, rather than the minister - because that sends the signal that the leadership of the Defence Force get it, the leadership of the Defence Force will not tolerate in any way inappropriate, improper or despicable conduct.”
There are some sound arguments for the minister making sure the military carries the public weight of dealing with bad behaviour.
Critics thought Smith became too personally involved in the Skype affair. But the military’s better handling this time can be seen as lessons learned, and vindication of the rough time Smith gave it on the last occasion, so he doesn’t feel it now necessary to take centre stage. As the election bears down, it is also possible he does not want to get caught up too much in the issue.
Morrison argues strongly that the investigation can be adequately handled internally, in cooperation with the police where criminal matters are potentially involved.
Former Army head Peter Leahy agrees. “I don’t think you need an external review. He is going to go for these guys. The Chief of Army should be allowed to do his job.”
It can also be argued however that, given the record of the military over a long period, an independent investigation would be desirable. The public needs to be given an account of precisely what happened and why the checks that are presumably in the system did not pick up the misbehaviour a long time ago.
You don’t have to doubt the good intentions of the ADF top brass. But history does lead to questions about its ability to ensure that actions match intentions.