Monday, April 25, 2011


Over the past week the mood in Defence has quickly se-sawed.

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 . . .


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.


  1. Hello Nic,

    Your article today is over the top, I think.

    Your notion that Defence is some sort of ticking time bomb ready to explode the next time Minister Smith rattles someone’s cage or kicks some sacred cow is just wrong-headed, no matter how precipitate some of Smith’s recent actions have been. It’s also an insult to the senior levels of the ADF to suggest that some of them may resign, or in some other way publicly protest, over Smith’s actions. Whatever their private feelings - indeed, whatever some of them may have said to you - about how Smith is conducting himself, they will not behave poorly in public in this or any other matter.

    One reason for this is because they have lifetimes of service and adherence to accepted behavioural norms behind them and another is because they – as with nearly all salaried employees - fear the personal career consequences of any such poor behaviour.

    I’m sure that you’re aware that Smith, like former Defence Ministers, has a “kitchen Cabinet” of very senior former Defence people, both military and civilian. They’re almost certainly advising him on this matter.


    (Name withheld, this comment was sent to Nic on his other e-mail,

  2. I also recieved this comment on my other e-mail. I'm reprinting it without the author attached.

    "Steve, Keep up the good work.

    Laughable to read Nic Stuarts comments in the Canberra Times on 23 Apr 2011 re Kafer and natural justice. It was clear when the AFP Commissioner responded to the media re the efficacy of ADFA's initial complaint that the ball had been dropped. Certainly with my 25 years service as an Infantry soldier I would never have stood between anyone who had a serious criminal complaint and any State or Federal police service. That Kafer (or his underlings) put ADFA's reputation between that young girl and a policeman is inexcusable behaviour and he deserves censure. As that young RAAF girl was a citizen of this country no organisation should stand between a complainant and the police."

  3. I've responded to the last comment as follows:

    Thanks for passing on your comment. I don't have proof, of course, of what happened, but I have been given to understand that the Vice Chief of Defence was also outraged that the charge against the male officer cadet was dropped. My comment about Cdre Kafer's situation was simply that I understand he's had advice that he's been denied natural justice, I didn't make any comment about whether the ball had been dropped, or not.

    Thanks for your comment.