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Culture trouble - the ADFA, the Ministers, and the Commissioner

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Monday, 18 April 2011

One of the worst decisions made by the Fraser Government – amongst a panoply of poor decisions – was the establishment of the campus on the outskirts of Canberra, now known as the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). It was here that the now infamous episode occurred of the transmission to what some may describe as a group of ADFA voyeurs of what was understood by the young woman involved to be an episode involving consensual sexual intercourse with a fellow cadet.

Before the exclusive Canberra campus was set up, some students in the military attended at the University of New South Wales campus. There, they tended to bunch together as a group. Yet at least they were on a campus amongst non-military students. At least they saw other students going about their studies – whether in the library, sitting on the lawns, eating and drinking coffee in the cafes, speaking out at demonstrations in the main quadrangle. At least they came into contact, however briefly, with other human beings. At least their exclusivity had some antidote.

Far from being a healthy environment, one which – like the Canberra campus – has no alternative vision, nothing in view which provides an exception to the notion that the world consists of cadets and military personnel, cannot be positive for students. To have students coming into contact daily with fellow military only is a recipe for conduct that, unfortunately, appears again and again in the military – just as it appears again and again in other institutions that lionise macho culture.


When I voted 'yes' to the Sydney Morning Herald poll asking: 'Is there need for a review of the Defence Force disciplinary procedures in light of recent incidents?' the grid showed 87% of respondents agreed. As the accompanying rider says, 'These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.' Yet the poll on ADF discipline does tell us something. Even more, the regularity with which revelations emanate from various parts of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) on bullying, harassment, bastardisation (euphemistically named 'initiation ceremonies') and even suicide, surely indicates the need for more than a review. At least, this time, there is a recognition on the part of the Minister for Defence that culture is in issue; that culture is the nub of the problem; that culture is a priority.

This matters, because review after review after review has been conducted into what surely must be acknowledged as endemic problems within the military. This surely follows when 'review' has followed 'review' – yet the stories continue to flow. Even more regrettably, those stories which do come to public attention must be the proverbial tip of the iceberg, as with all institutions and industries, cover-up will occur, whilst some recruits and others (often at relatively high levels) leave or hold on, remaining mute despite the stories of victimisation and survival that could fall from their lips, were they able to speak.

 The ADF website tells another story: the ADF is 'committed to promoting equality and diversity, both in the workplace, and in its management practices'. The website reports the existence of an 'Equity Adviser Network' that 'supports Defence personnel at all levels to help maintain a working environment free of harassment and discrimination'. Furthermore, equity and diversity principles 'apply to all ADF personnel'.

The website defines 'equity and diversity' as meaning 'fair treatment' with equal opportunity extended to 'everyone' so as 'to make the most of their talents and abilities'. This, says the ADF, it 'aims to achieve' through applying the following principles:

  • Treating each other with dignity and respect;
  • Recognising that everyone is different and valuing those differences;
  • Maximising the different contributions people can make to the team;
  • Making judgements based on fairness and merit;
  • Eliminating artificial, unfair and inappropriate barriers to workplace participation;
  • Providing appropriate means to monitor and address discrimination and harassment;
  • Providing opportunities for flexibility when meeting organisational requirements;
  • Consulting personnel on policies and decisions that affect them.

Following the most recent revelation – described by Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston as 'isolated' – yet another review was announced as to occur within the organisation itself. Yet as with reviews, announcements of them have been publicised again and again. Problems have occurred at the ADFA, the Royal Military Academy, Duntroon, and at state military training establishments.


In 2000, Eleanor Tibble killed herself in fear that she would be dismissed from the military. An air cadet, she had allegedly engaged in a relationship with a senior officer in Hobart, at the Tasmanian Air Training Corps. At the time it was said her belief that she would be discharged was 'mistaken'. Yet the case disclosed a number of reasons for concern. What brought Eleanor Tibble to the point where she saw suicide as the only 'solution'? What was the lead-up to her forming that view? If the alleged relationship occurred, what circumstances permitted or enabled a senior officer to engage in conduct breaching the duty of care owed to Eleanor Tibble as an air cadet? Did these circumstances place at risk others in Eleanor Tibble's position?

In 2001 the former Justice Burchett undertook a review consequent upon concerns based in allegations of abusive conduct in the ADF and an alleged failure of disciplinary procedures. Reporting in August that year, he acknowledged the existence of bastardisation practices in military institutions 'in the past', but:

Whatever may have been the case with such practices in the past, they have not been followed in the great body of the Defence force for a number of years.

Furthermore, establishing the inquiry demonstrated 'the depth of determination to expose the full extent of any failure in the ADF to follow the course of law'.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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