Saturday, March 10, 2012


Before embarking on a course of action, it's always important to choose the right 'mission'.

That's the disaster that accompanies the series of 'culture reviews' Defence has undergone over the past year. They'll change nothing.

Far better to consider how it might have been done differently . . .


Sometimes the messy solution is for the best. It should cause absolutely no surprise that a top QC, famed across the country for his insight and acumen, has found neither Commodore Bruce Kafer nor Defence Minister Stephen Smith erred in law as they reacted in response to the Skype sex scandal. This result is no doubt highly frustrating to all concerned: but seriously, can you imagine an alternative?

Smith should be condemned for asserting Kafer's actions were ''stupid''. That is a word no minister should ever use about a subordinate who is unable to respond. So, let me do so. It was unintelligent of Smith to use that word. It was also wrong of him to take so long to release the report exonerating the commodore. But his other actions were correct.

There can be little doubt that if Bob Carr hadn't come to Canberra, Smith would have moved back to Foreign Affairs and the whole issue would have been resolved with saved face on both sides. Defence would have acquired yet another ministerial scalp (I wonder where they store such trophies) but Smith would, in all probability, be so transported with delight at departing the graveyard that nothing could ever wipe the smile from his face.

This, however, is the real world, not a fantasy. And there can be no fairytale ending in any chapter dealing with the military.

Let's traverse the sex first and the dysfunction second. The very fact that an officer cadet would want to Skype his bedding of another to supposed mates in another room is, quite frankly, bizarre. But a few weeks earlier the people concerned had been civilians. Their actions were completely at odds with military culture. Then the media became involved and the personal disasters quickly exploded into a public debacle.

It's not difficult to see why this led to the minister's intemperate outburst against the ADFA commandant. It's hardly surprising that Smith had become extremely frustrated with the military. His tenure as minister had been marked by a succession of instances where he had been hung out to dry by the institution. The most obvious of these was the navy's admission that our amphibious fleet couldn't take to sea, but just consider a couple of the other examples that might have led him to question whether the organisation had any ability whatsoever to regulate itself properly. The Joint Strike Fighter is already beyond budget and running late. The army's tanks were too vulnerable to be sent to Iraq. The submarine fleet is just sinking money. The only way we can assert our mission has achieved any success in Afghanistan is by redefining it, which is why we're now just ''training'' the Afghans. That way it's their fault when we leave and it all turns to crap.

Quite suddenly the minister seemed to be confronted yet again with evidence that even the military's supposedly luminous officer training institution was apparently little more than a St Trinian's boarding school for Very Naughty Girls and Boys.

Laws exist to codify our behaviour and establish norms to regulate it. Normally these are not necessary, but things change when individuals are under stress. His frustration with the institution bubbled over. But how about some sympathy on the other side? The ADFA commandant was attempting to resolve a situation that should never have occurred. Significantly, two of the cadets involved have left the academy over the past year. Perhaps that is what many of those in uniform wanted to happen, quietly, all along.

We've come a long way since the mid-'70s, when then minister David Fairbairn (an ex-Spitfire pilot and trooper of the 21st Light Horse) used to call the service chiefs, ''Sir''. But even he didn't really mean it, of course; he always knew he was their boss. And so is Smith. The minister is, by definition, ''correct''.

At the time he had his sudden brain snap he also had good cause to be infuriated with the military. That's why a sordid example of exhibitionism and R-rated viewing was allowed to spiral into a massive inquiry that embraced the entire institution. It would be horrific even if only one case of abuse had been uncovered. Instead there are hundreds. But, in admitting this, it's important to note that this is probably far fewer then we'd find in any similar large civilian institution and is also to some extent irrelevant. The issue is what's happening today.

This is where we return to the ambiguities of the Kirkham report. It has not ''blown the top off'' some kind of imagined culture of misogyny and abuse within Defence. Nor have the services been absolutely exonerated. But if we attempt to look forward, rather than trawling over salacious tit-bits of what has gone on in the past, it can be seen that the inquiry was answering the wrong questions.

The vital public policy issue is neither how prevalent this sort of scandalous behaviour is (either at ADFA or at civilian universities) nor how it was dealt with by either party. The real point is that it costs the taxpayer more than $100,000 each and every year to educate a cadet. Is this really value for money?

Smith still believes his criticism of Kafer was valid. Although nobody will ever say so publicly, the vast majority of the officer corps disagree with the minister. Inculcated with the vital military requirement for solidarity, they're backing the commandant. This means Smith will find it just that little bit harder to achieve the sort of necessary cultural change he's attempting to institute. But he attempted to tackle this the wrong way.

The problem isn't the military ''culture''. A much better question to ask would have been why is the military even in the business of providing university training, anyway?

That's where Smith has failed politically. He could have had those very same people who are now criticising him backing him up and onside as he drove real change through the forces. He was fighting the right battle, he just chose the wrong person to pick on.


  1. A fair observation Nick.... but the Military have always had officer training schools and the complexity of modern life means a greater degree of training and education is now needed. Before ADFA, the RMC Duntroon was affiliated with UNSW so its not a great change. Remember your days at OCTU as a young officer cadet ? Would that be sufficient training for overseas deployments in culturally and politically challenging places such as Timor, the Middle East etc ? Sydney University provided the education for you much the same as the cadets of today have ADFA (with all the pranks and misconduct that can go with it). Commodore Kafer and all the Commandants will always be faced with this odd mix of tertiary education establishment merged with military academy.

  2. Thanks, Sentinel. Would you be happy to get in touch? Could you send me an e-mail at