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Tinkering with tribalism: women and cultural change in the ADF

Of all the inquiries and interventions it has taken a woman to bring deep and incisive change to the Australian Defence Force. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has Elizabeth Broderick and her team to thank for recent progress in the war against sexism and perversion at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). But it is military tribalism that will be the hardest nut to crack.

Broderick, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity (HREOC) Sex Discrimination Commissioner, this week released the 2013 Audit Report for the Review into the Treatment of Women at ADFA. The audit reports on the progress ADFA have made since the initial review was held in 2011 after the infamous Skype incident.

On that occasion, six ADFA cadets conspired to broadcast one of the brotherhood having consensual sex with a female colleague to an adjacent dormitory room via Skype. The incident was a final straw for the broader Australian community who has been exposed to sexual prurience, male predation and military misogyny for many decades. The Pathways to Change document, the culmination of the many cultural reviews, has put a line in the sand in many respects. But in particular it has taken the work of Broderick and her team to lead the way.

Other key reviews such as the personnel conduct review and the DLA Piper review into the history of physical and sexual abuse - and its outcome, the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART) - have failed to demonstrate the same levels of best practice and quality of intervention. The longstanding victims of defence would benefit from the same “victim” focused approach that this review has installed.

Some of the key pillars of Broderick’s response cover increased scrutiny, more accountable forms of intervention and the idea of sexual ethics training. The putting in place of residential support officers – people on the ground in the ADFA lines – provides a safeguard against the few that take their sense of military licence too far. This may be one of the reasons that there have been increased reports of sexual misconduct in recent times.

The establishment of the Sexual Misconduct and Prevention Response Office (SMPRO) is perhaps the most important. The SMPRO will provide a place for those who have been sexually harassed or victimised to report and find support. Most importantly, this office sits outside of the chain of command. That means it has the opportunity to act outside of the culture of insularity that maintains military abuse.

The report also recommends the establishment of sexual ethics training: that is, interactive training that establishes the basis for healthy and respectful relationships. This is a far cry from the kind of online gender awareness initiatives of the past, or the conceptually impoverished cultural diversity training that military personnel receive during their service.

It is this last process that really begins to focus on the difficult work of generating a military better connected to the values of the society from which it gains its moral legitimacy. It is this initiative that moves in the orbit of real cultural change and can begin to penetrate military insularity.

There are two key forms of military insularity. The first is the creation of soldier. The very process of creating a soldier sets him apart from the civilian. A soldier, a sailor and to a lesser extent an airman sees himself as culturally distinct from the civilian. He is trained that way, and it creates a peculiar structural dilemma for any military across the globe. How do you make the military man without cultivating his capacity for disrespect of women and others.

The military is constituted by nearly 90% men. Most of them are Australian born. This is the second element of insularity. When men come together equipped with military licence - where rough men exist so that the rest of us can sleep safely at night - their practice of forging brotherhood results in organisational sexism and sometimes extreme examples of perversity.

Take, for example, the recent “Jedi Council” incident, that involved around 100 military personnel engaging in a circle of social media sharing photography and notes on women for sexual gratification. As a military police investigator I came across similar fraternities. The recent instance of ADFA cadets being forced to undress to Eagle Rock and fondling each others’ genitals is a similar ritual of fraternity.

Sexual discrimination and perversity are only part of the picture. Cultural acceptance is the other. If women have been difficult to engage, men and women of ethnic difference remain on an almost entirely different planet. The unfortunate examples of dressing up as the Ku Klux Klan for photographs or descriptions of Afghanis in racially derogatory terms express a similar cultural disposition.

Army chief David Morrison has spoken recently of the need to rid the ADF of undesirable elements. AAP/Lukas Coch

However, the establishment of SMPRO is a clear move in the right direction despite the length of time it has taken the ADF to arrive at this point. But that initiative must be taken further.

In 2005, the Senate review into the effectiveness of Australia’s military justice system - constituted by 44 senators - recommended the establishment of the Australian Defence Force Administrative Review Board (ADFARB). This agency would sit outside of the chain of command; it would provide defence victims of all military abuse a means of confident to redress their grievances.

Millions of dollars, numerous incidents of disrepute and nearly a decade later it has taken the Sex Discrimination Commissioner with the help of defence minister Stephen Smith to break that circuit of insularity, albeit in a limited form.

Perhaps it is the right time historically and internationally. The ADF continues to experience recruitment challenges and it must derive its members from an increasingly culturally diverse national population. Other nations, for example Canada and Israel, have led the way having already established agencies of authority outside of the chain of command. Only recently the United States Congress brought every military chief in the nation before its benches. The establishment of a similar sexual abuse agency one of the key points of discussion.

The ADF deserves credit for recent responses. Chief of Army Lieutenant-General David Morrison’s “line in the sand” video address where he states: “those who think it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this army…if that does not suit you then get out” is a particularly clear example, and has received global commendation.

That the ADF is beginning to look outside its own ranks for direction and expertise on matters it has been manifestly incapable of addressing on its own is key to its future. Insular organisations, of which all militaries are predisposed to, require external mechanisms of scrutiny, yet they are also profoundly threatened by them.

The initiatives of the HREOC intervention have been a guiding light. While progress has been visible it remains to be seen if we are only tinkering with tribalism or refashioning the military mould.

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