The sparks are still flying over the comments by Stephen Smith about the culture of ingrained sexism in Defence.
This column - very different to my last - was written after a number of conversations with senior officers in the services/ It waz published on Saturday . . .
THE REBELLION IN THE RANKS
A serious anger is simmering just beneath the surface at Russell. There’s no mutiny, but significant number of senior officers have been outraged by many of the recent actions and statements of their Minister. They don’t excuse the actions of a male student at the Defence Academy, who decided to skype a lover’s tryst to a group of new mates in an adjoining room. But they are furious at the way Stephen Smith has treated the Chiefs and slashed his own way through the structure of the Department.
There is no argument about civilian control of the military – that’s a given. At issue is the way this particular Minister is choosing to handle the scandal that’s consuming Defence. Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has been playing the role of his life in managing to successfully keep the forces united. No peep of public comment has escaped from the Mess – but it could so easily have been otherwise. It seems unlikely Smith realised the tinderbox he’d ignited. A glance at the drawn features of the Chief demonstrates the enormous pressure he’s been placed under as he desperately attempts to maintain the morale and reputation of the forces without publicly contradicting the Minister.
If anyone else was in the top job it seems unlikely that Smith would have been able to get away with what he has so far. Houston has navigated his way carefully between preserving the morale and integrity of the forces while guiding his Minister to make sure that the actions Smith is determined to take don’t irredeemably damage the institution. He’s taking a long-term view, trying to pilot Defence through the current crisis while still maintaining morale and ensuring there are no dissident voices that would conflict with the Minister.
The confrontation has finally reached the stage where any spark could set off an explosion. No one is quite sure if Smith is aware how thin is the ice he’s skating over. Within two months the military hierarchy will turn over; neither the CDF nor the Chiefs of the Army, Navy or Air force expect to be reappointed. These are people with nothing to lose — they will make a stand if they feel circumstances warrant. Time is running short and yet Smith has not yet come up with any names for replacements. It’s possible that Smith has already been warned by the incumbents that there are some actions that will not be tolerated. If any of them resigned, the sense of crisis consuming the government could be enough to topple the fragile balance that keeps Labor in power with the help of the independents.
The clearest example of how this fight will play out will be over the future of Commodore Bruce Kafer. The concern here is that, although the Minister has portrayed himself as cleaning out an Augean stables of misogyny and hidebound attitudes in the forces, some suggest his attitude has been equally abrupt and unwilling to consider alternative (and possibly better) outcomes. Although Smith describes himself as a “former lawyer”, it’s understood the former ADFA Commandant has been informed that the minister’s actions denied him natural justice. This means he would have a winnable case if he sought legal redress; a situation that would be highly embarrassing for Smith virtually dictating that the politician would need to resign.
Initially, through his swift and decisive actions, Smith rapidly won the public relations battle. It’s only now becoming apparent that he did so by silencing the top brass. He reportedly made this decision to prevent them from further fleshing out the details of what was occurring, apparently instructing the Chief that he was only to speak publicly once Smith had given authorisation. The Minister was understandably desperate to ensure he controlled the story. Understandably, he wanted the ability to define it in the public arena, but if correct this represents an astounding breakdown in trust between the politicians and his top brass.
The previous minister, John Faulkner, understood the need to break down the barriers between the defence organisation and civilians. He encouraged to begin a regular monthly briefing with journalists that went a considerable way towards breaking down suspicion on both sides. When he became minister it is understood that Smith ordered the Chief to cease these informal contacts with the media. Apparently he felt the need to personally vet the information being released to the public. Unfortunately, a number of journalists have found that the Minister has been unavailable when they’ve attempted to speak to him about the current issues bedevilling the relationship.
Smith prefers, instead, to offer himself for electronic interviews by selected journalists while curbing the ability of senior officers to speak publicly. Senior officers consider this a problem because the Minister has created a forum for former members of the forces to complain about their treatment in the military. This has led to an environment in which the default position is that every complaint levelled against the military is assumed to be correct, unless proved false. “No one doubts”, says one two-star officer, “that in the past terrible abuses have occurred; the point is to stop them in the future. That’s exactly what the Chief’s been trying to do over the past six years. Now Smith’s training us through the mud. Why would anyone want to join up now?”
Senior officers have complained that Smith’s television appearances have appeared designed to encourage complainants to come forward. They suggest although this may be “healing” to the individuals concerned, it is highly unlikely (due to concerns about the passing of time and the burden of truth) that the military will be able to “fix” individuals’ personal grievances. They are also concerned the reputation of the military will be besmirched by extravagant claims that can’t be verified.
One might have expected the Minister for Defence Personnel to have something to say about these issues, as they so obviously concern his portfolio. A press release was issued but unfortunately not on these issues. Warren Snowdon was in France this week, for the reinterment ceremony of an Australian World War One aviator. No doubt he’ll be more involved in drafting the new strategy to employ women throughout the forces when he returns.