Defending defence


There is now a plethora of issues that have emerged from the ADFA Skype sex affair. 

Skyping a sex act without the knowledge of at least one of the two participants was reprehensible, as was watching it. Remember that the act of having sex was explicitly against the rules that every cadet understood, so there is plenty of liability to go around.

The demand for the immediate sacking of the male involved has been complicated by the suggestion that he also may have been unaware of the Skyping. Sounds unbelievable, but only an investigation will reveal the truth. If we had sacked him on day one, as so many demanded, injustice would have been heaped on injustice. 

The act of an uninvolved cadet who went to authorities was commendable, as was the speed with which the authorities acted (albeit with a few ragged edges — shaving cream, apologies etc.) but only an investigation will clarify these issues because already many accusations have been found to be untrue.

I will make my own decision on how appropriate it was to proceed with the female cadet's previous alcohol and absence charge parallel to the Skype incident once I have seen the investigation. I do not necessarily agree with the Minster that proceeding with the older charge was 'inappropriate, insensitive and completely stupid'.

It would only be a sackable offence if the intent was to humiliate her, and there is no suggestion that was the case. The Minister may know something I do not, but I doubt it. But that previous charge must still be addressed at some stage, and public talk of 'quashing' by the Minister was in error.

The Minster must feel embarrassed that he publicly implied that he led the demand for the second AFP opinion, when it was the military leadership that initiated it. There was no cover up — quite the opposite.

None of us know what happened between the Minister and the CDF in relation to a resignation threat, although the Minister would not have been so direct in his denial had there been any possibility of such a threat later coming out. I conjecture that as soon as the Minister thought about the hole he had dug for himself by his initial comments, he would immediately have realised the position into which he had put the CDF. There would have been no need for the CDF to threaten to resign — the Minister would have been amenable to any compromise.

Defence needs reform in a dozen areas, and the Minister cannot do it by himself. Neither can he do it without the defence leadership being on his side.

Even though he may have acted rashly, this and the next generation of ADF leadership will acknowledge his authority and show him loyalty, no matter how irrational he is. If he is truly a reformer, and not just a scared politician afraid that the realities of defence will destroy his career, then defence will welcome his leadership. 

The firestorm of ignorant criticism of the ADF, its 'culture' and its leadership was mostly not deserved and could be counterproductive. 

The individual complaints of abuse or mismanagement are different. Every complaint of mistreatment must be investigated and action taken. If a complaint occurred 40 years ago, then it still needs investigation. But all parties in the investigation have their rights, and a witch hunt now is just as bad as the initial crime then.

Proportion is important. Over the last 40 years of complaints, there could have been as many as 6-800,000 separate individuals in the regular and reserve ADF, assuming the majority serve for five years. Every case is a tragedy, but let's see how many cases of abuse and mismanagement come out, compared to the total number of Australians serving and the nature of that service. Perhaps defence is brilliantly successful. Rhetoric can be about zero defects and zero tolerance, but it is best to manage for something more realistic. 

In my view, given what we know now, wanting to remove the Commandant was wrong. The Minister apparently accepted the compromise of sending him on leave, but that is still sub-optimal before at least an initial, independent investigation.

At the time of writing, the AFP have not yet ascertained what crime has been committed. 

Defence has the same problem as society in relation to young people's attitudes to sex, alcohol and social media. Given the defence environment, I wonder if perhaps the ADF handle it better than most. Defence is a reflection of society, but we average people seem to achieve much with Australia's average recruits, even if we do fail some individuals. 

I would like to comment on the 'defence culture' that is being constantly referred to, but I am not too sure what it is. Is the defence culture misogynist? I have met few misogynists and none in the ADF, although we probably have as many as in society. Is it 'blokey? Seeing that the ADF is 88 per cent male, some aspect of maleness is certainly present. Maleness or blokeyness is not necessarily bad in itself: assaults or intimidation, mismanagement or cover-ups, or intolerance are bad.

Defence probably has as many homophobes as society in general, which is sad. I have met only one, and he came from another generation.

Is defence culture a warrior culture? I wish the ADF had far more of a warrior culture: a culture where the most important aspect of any serviceman or woman's life is to prepare to win in battle. Winning in battle is as much about the unit, ship or squadron cohesion as it is about weapons and training. Cohesive units ar not characterised by hate, intolerance and mismanagement. The eulogies for every one of our heroes killed in Afghanistan and the statements from our heroes awarded bravery medals indicate that they come from cohesive, successful units. 

The Skype sex act has morphed into a civil/military authority issue. Professors Paul Dibb and Hugh White used it to say 'the military have not shown themselves to be neutral, apolitical and obedient to civilian authority' and 'people in the ADF have got used to thinking that the minister is just another stakeholder and not the boss'.

Are there some silly people in defence who once said their loyalty lies with the Governor General and not the government of the day? Probably, but defence is big. I will bet it is a view none of its leaders have shared for years. Defence does not see the minister as only a customer for the security function that defence provides. They see him as both the boss and as the customer. That is what makes this relationship unique.

Since I became a senior officer about 16 years ago, I have never heard any view put anywhere that anyone but the minister was the boss. We certainly whinged in private about the silliness of some ministers, but there was no disloyalty. 

But what we all fully understand is the difference between civilian control of the military exercised by the minister, and the desire that was present in previous civilian public servant generations, even during White and Dibb's period, to want to control the military themselves.

White also used the Skype sex incident to speak about inefficient defence spending. He criticises defence for 'spending a great deal of money … on capabilities we do not need, such as $8b on air warfare destroyers'. This might be going a little too far, from bedroom to the high seas. Hugh has a right to make this accusation, it is his opinion that we do not need the ships. But he is not infallible. His is only one opinion and a lot of good people disagree. It is not a failure of leadership and culture to disagree with Hugh White.

I agree with the Minister that the 'biggest challenge we have in defence is to improve personal and institutional accountability'. But accountability starts with the Minister. He is the boss and defence will do as he bids, but he must be accountable to someone for his actions. A series of defence ministers since 1976 have personally failed to be accountable for failing to fund their own five White Papers on defence. 

Defence is so strangely organised that accountability is almost impossible at the moment. Should we have sacked the Chief of Navy for the failure of the amphibious fleet, or should we sack the head of the organisation responsible for the maintenance of that fleet?

It is ministers over many years that have set up the current organisation of defence. Of course the Minister should run defence. And accountability should start with him. If he accepts accountability, as he wants others below him to do, he may find he has to go to cabinet and ask for more money. Defence is grossly underfunded. It should be praised for keeping the amphibious ships going for so long without adequate funding. Once the Minister works out who is responsible for what, I welcome sacking for failure. As long as he is also accountable.

The Minister, supported by the CDF, has directed that a number of inquiries take place. This will be good as long as the actions of the Minister himself are also assessed.

Having shown his displeasure with his view of the ADF culture, he went on to admit that despite all the steps he has now taken, there is no guarantee that actions such as the sex Skyping incident will not occur again. Isn't this the issue? Such grubbiness will occur. It is how you handle it that is important. If the Minister had not stepped in, it now appears from all revelations, that the situation would have been handled well.

Then the issue of women in combat arose. The ADF has women in combat, but not in units specifically for combat at close quarters. In fact, the ADF is at least as advanced as any nation in the world. The myth of women in Israeli combat units has been well and truly exposed. But if Australian society wants women in combat units, then Australian society will have women in combat units.

But I suspect the ADF's critics are looking more at giving women the right to be in combat units. Women are not joining the ADF in areas where there are now no restrictions to their employment, just as women are grossly under-represented in emergency services across Australia, and there are no bans at all on their participation there, and no 'ADF culture' to blame. 

All of these issues will consume ADF leadership over the next few years in a way that most outside big government bureaucracies would never believe, even if not one woman volunteers to be in a combat unit or if all the investigations show the ADF to be a paragon of virtue. All the other problems with the ADF, of which there are many indeed, will just have to take a step down in priority. And that is a shame.


Jim MolanMajor General Jim Molan is a retired senior officer in the Australian Army.

Topic tags: Jim Molan, Skype, sex, military, adfa, warrior culture, hugh white, paul dibb, defence minister stephen smit



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Existing comments

So there you have it, folks. It is all the fault of the Minister for Defence who acted rashly and irrationally. How dare he tell the defence forces what to do. Who does he think he is anyway? Elected by people from the back blocks of Western Australia, some with no more than elementary education. I bet they don't even know what CDF stands for. Makes you look at Burma with envy, it does.
Frank | 21 April 2011

A reasoned and reasonable article - but hardly the objective assessment we need. The Major General seems to miss many connections and is too keen to deflect us by introducing tangential issues, including the juicy fear-mongering that "ignorant criticism of the ADF, its 'culture' and its leadership...could be counterproductive". It's one of the oldest rhetorical ploys imaginable - and of course he offers no explanation of how criticism might do so.

My overall impression of the Major-General's article is that he is aware of the issues of culpability and responsibility but his punches are spent and ineffectual when he accommodates critique of the ADF: "Maleness or blokeyness is not necessarily bad in itself: assaults or intimidation, mismanagement or cover-ups, or intolerance are bad." "Bad", sir? They are reprehensible.

On the basis of this piece, it is hard to share his confidence that "if the Minister had not stepped in, it now appears from all revelations, that the situation would have been handled well".
I would welcome an objective assessment of the ADF, its environment and the current issue.
Alistair P D Bain | 21 April 2011

@martinekmaryann Social networking may introduce a new window into the barracks room culture at ADFA or units elsewhere, a medium which may be impossible in the future to ban or prevent people (who are commonwealth employees) from taking these incidents increasingly to the media.The ADFA skype incident took us all to that grubby level and there has been little mention of an alleged ADFA cadet suicide in early March this year?
mary-ann martinek | 21 April 2011

I enjoyed the first 16 paragraphs of Jim Molan's article. What he wrote needed to be said. But then he started talking about "the defence culture" - admitting he was not too sure what it is.

Why not ask the people who use the expression what they mean? Could Eureka Street invite Paul Dibb or Hugh White to write an article on the subject?
Culture has been broadly defined as the total repertoire of human action (and its products)which is socially, as distinct from genetically, transmitted.

When people apply to join the defence forces they come with say 18/20 years social conditioning. They undergo, so I've been told, psychological testing. At best psychologists claim that they can only guarantee negative selection. They say they can be pretty sure the persons they reject would not have coped with life in the Armed Services, They do not, however, claim that those they pass will succeed. But psychologists have some idea what "defence culture" involves with regard to human behaviour.

Perhaps Eureka Street could invite a psychologist who conducts psychological testing of defence recruits what he/she thinks about the concept "the defence culture".
Uncle Pat | 21 April 2011

General Molan is one of Australia's most distinguished soldiers. His review, which recognizes that the facts are not yet established,is in my view a sober assessment of how we outsiders might approach this issue until we are told all the facts including those relating to the minister's role.

The other most sensible view i have so far seen was by General Leahy in one of the broardsheets. Not only do they have insiders' insights,they have experience of the real world in which we live. These problems are not peculiar to the military. They are examples of how our society conducts itself.
jl trew | 21 April 2011

My, possibly misguided question is, would the same thing have happened if the 80% majority of the population were women?

Ryan McBride, Killester Girls College (Springvale, VIC)
Ryan McBride | 24 April 2011

Well said General.

A pity that most of the corresponders below comment in total ignorance of the Defence Force and its culture and misunderstand the point of your discussion on that subject.

It is many years since I was a serving member but I remain proud of that service and the high standards of behaviour that I learned from it. None of us would have condoned the conduct displayed and I wonder why no question of the behaviour of the couple engaged in the act has arisen. It would certainly not have been condoned at a training establishment in my time of service; perhaps some of the more lax civilian standards are creeping into Defence culture.

Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers people. This stuff happens everywhere, just look on the web, but the ADF would have handled it appropriately and probably more so than a civilian establishment.
Taz Wilks | 28 April 2011

Jim Molan makes some excellent points. A pity that some either misunderstand them or deliberately misconstrue them through ideological or other prejudices.
A major problem is that people with no knowledge of the situation at ADFA, or of the ADF or war, are relying on grossly inaccurate and sensatiuonalist media coverage instead of the actual facts and moral dillemmas involved.
The criticisms Jim makes of the Minister for Defence are also valid. No-one argues against the constitutional principle of civil control of the military - but such control needs to be exercised in accordance with the constitution, the law, and the principles of natural justice and administrative law. Stephen Smith has clearly failed in this regard by his attempt to quash a disciplinary proceeding (contrary to the principle of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary), and his scapegoating of ADFA's commandant.
What happened recently was not that the ADF's leaders somehow resisted the Minister's control of the ADF but that they had to insist on it being done properly.
As to the women in combat discussion, can I suggest that those wishing to discuss this subject first read the discussion paper at
Neil James (Executive Director, Aust. Defence Assn | 04 May 2011

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