Reconciliation or Royal Commission? ADF abuse and the public record

Some ADFA cadets have been through horrific abuse. It’s time for their trauma to be on the record. AAP/Alan Porritt

One could be mistaken for thinking that the recent flurry of activity around Defence abuse is a recent phenomenon. The Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) Skype Affair of 2011 drew nation-wide attention, and brought the culture of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) into serious question.

Five male officer cadets’ lecherous broadcast of one of their mate’s sexual interactions with a female peer, without her knowledge, seriously disturbed civil mores.

It raised the question: “Can we, civil society, tolerate the sexual and prejudicial conduct of military personnel toward others, even in consideration of the hefty obligations they adopt as potential combatants and national guardians?” Do we expect more? The community response suggests we clearly do.

Disgusted and perplexed

The public discourse that ensued was polarised. The Defence establishment, a loud minority of retired Generals and the Australia Defence Association (ADA), argued vehemently that there was no culture of abuse, that any organisation has the same problems and that 700 cases over 50 years is a mere drop in the ocean: nothing to be concerned about. And what would civilians know about the real ADF anyway?

Civil society was disgusted and perplexed, especially in the context of accompanying incidents of sexual predation and alcohol abuse on the HMAS Success and a Gay Hate Facebook page aimed at ADF members. In the past four months another series of rapes and sexual abuse cases has marred the ADF’s reputation from Townsville to Canberra, across the Navy and Army.

Under review

Of particular interest is how the Skype incident generated a wave of correspondence - reportedly hundreds of mails - to the Minister for Defence by victims of this abuse. An event that propelled the Minister into action and prompted the DLA Piper review, and reviews into complaints handling in the ADF, the treatment of women at ADFA and in the ADF more generally, and the ADF personnel conduct review.

In the past six months or so the DLA Piper review of Defence abuse, and the raft of internal reviews culminating in the Pathways for Change document, underscored community concern and left the Defence establishments’ attempts to neutralise the matter out in the cold.

The ADF acknowledged the propensity for abuse within military culture, and DLA Piper outlined the tendency to silence, cover up or fail to report abuse, and systemic forms of bullying, bastardisation and sexually criminal practices in detail. Questions of incidence are relevant and remain open but making an assessment is near impossible given the opaque character of ADF data recording and reporting.

Why a Royal Commission?

On the table are a number of responses: compensation, a reconciliation process and/or a Royal Commission. A Royal Commission has immediate appeal but also various drawbacks.

The principal appeal is that it is an independent review with wide ranging investigative powers. The recent raft of inquiries, not to mention most of those before, has been internal.

The terms of reference were established by the ADF, under the authority of the Chief of Defence. Investigative Officers were almost always compromised by their place within the Chain of Command, exposed to the same kinds of peer and organisational pressure of conformity described in the DLP Piper review contributing to group abuse and the dysfunctional culture of reporting.

The integrity of a Royal Commission lies in the development of appropriate, and serious, terms of reference. A significant suggestion in the DLA Piper review is that personnel who have engaged in abuse in the past are still serving. They are still in command of troops and they remain accountable for their abuse and criminality.

An appropriately defined Royal Commission must be able to engage with this issue.

On the record

Matters of abuse within Defence are as old as the organisation itself yet there is no comprehensive public record of this phenomenon. The media, as an arm of civil society has been the principal means of public accountability.

But the fourth estate, given its commercial interests, is not without its drawbacks. Journalists and editors change positions and defence abuse over the years has become discovered and rediscovered. A Royal Commission contributes to the consolidation of this institutional history and its practices, not simply emerging from the shock and awe of the Skype incident but concerned with the longstanding history of this concern.

However, Royal Commissions are expensive: a gravy train for the legal fraternity and the other crowd of bureaucratic beneficiaries. The DLA Piper intervention has reportedly cost up to $14 million over about 12 months. The cost must be justified with the integrity of the process. Royal Commissions take time and by necessity ask the victims to relive their trauma to an impersonal and administrative entity.

Restoring confidence

Confidence in the ADF reviews has been, and will continue to be, a significant obstacle to the victim’s engagement. The Defence establishment’s claim that 700 claims over 50 years is minimal is profoundly naïve. Incidence cannot be adequately considered when victims fear reprisal or are cynical of real action given their experience within a dispassionate and recalcitrant institution. Many rejected DLA Piper’s offer to tell their story because of the firm’s engagement with the ADF defending cases in the past. The real population of victims remains unknown.

The strongest sentiment from my experience with around 140 victims of Defence abuse is reconciliation. The unfortunate subjects of military violence, by the nature of the institutional solidarity, have been shunted into the void. Many lead lives of darkness with depression and associated conditions.

Their confidence must be restored, to the extent that it can. Their voices heard, and their trauma acknowledged. Reconciliation processes provide greater compassion and public accountability. Compensation options should remain on the table.

A history of violence

The history of Defence abuse has caught up with the institution.

While the ADF have in numerous ways attempted to manage this matter themselves, the nature of military fraternity is self-interested and profoundly defensive.

The ADF recognises the need to modernise and the Pathways to Change document begins that process in earnest, building on already established strategies.

A Royal Commission has the overwhelming benefit of naming Defence abuse over time, and consolidating it on the public record. This cannot be underestimated. But the equally overwhelming concern is the need to finally attend to the needs of the victims of military violence.