ADFA and the ADF culture.

The dust has settled on the ugly Australian Defence Force Academy ‘Skype Incident’ – at least for the moment. A great deal has been written about the episode and much of it has been plain wrong – such as the baseless assertion that the Chief of the Defence Force threatened to resign over how the matter was being handled. This media myth – recycled for three days by its originator – came from a single unverified source with an axe to grind. What has emerged is a surprising amount of strong bipartisan political support for the position taken by Stephen Smith, who has been praised by former Liberal Defence Minister Peter Reith and former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson – amongst others.

12th May 2011



ADFA and the ADF culture.

The dust has settled on the ugly Australian Defence Force Academy ‘Skype Incident’ – at least for the moment. A great deal has been written about the episode and much of it has been plain wrong – such as the baseless assertion that the Chief of the Defence Force threatened to resign over how the matter was being handled. This media myth – recycled for three days by its originator – came from a single unverified source with an axe to grind. What has emerged is a surprising amount of strong bipartisan political support for the position taken by Stephen Smith, who has been praised by former Liberal Defence Minister Peter Reith and former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson – amongst others.

The Minister has been able to clearly articulate where he stands and what he is trying to achieve – namely to do everything possible to make sure that the ADF internal culture reflects values of tolerance and decency. To suggest that the military will somehow be weakened by this approach is not supported by any evidence.

Of the many interesting contributions to the debate about ADFA, the role of women in combat and so on has come from the former Chief of the Army, General Peter Leahy – who has questioned the need to continue with the academy. Even though he is now involved with a rival institution, his views are worth considering and it was surprising that Minister Smith quickly dismissed the idea.

Questioning the need for ADFA is not new. It is a very expensive way to educate young officers and now would be a good time to objectively review whether it in fact represents the best way of meeting the needs of the three services. Defence is under pressure to find significant internal savings and ADFA costs around $55 million per annum just for staff. In the lead-up to previous tough budgets there has been speculation that it could become a casualty of financial belt tightening, but not this year.

There are two other quite respectable ways of supplying university-educated officers. The first way is simply to recruit people once they have graduated and to start their military training from that moment. Another is to pay undergraduates – just like they do for ADFA – but to send them to an ordinary university and give them their military training during scheduled holidays, especially the long summer break. Both ideas have merit and should be considered. ADFA has produced large numbers of high quality officers – but the point is that there might be better and cheaper ways of obtaining the same results.

However, we respectfully disagree with another point made by Peter Leahy - namely that the young men involved in the ‘Skype incident’ could not have been representative of the ADF culture because they had only been at ADFA for 10 weeks. When you take a group of impressionable 18 year olds, most of them away from home for the first time, placed in unfamiliar circumstances and surrounded by complete strangers, they quickly absorb the prevailing culture. ADFA is different from universities and other tertiary institutions because all the students live on campus and it is of course a quasi-military environment with uniforms, marching, saluting and a noticeable hierarchy amongst the students themselves. The question is whether this approach is better for producing first class officers than the noticeably cheaper alternatives.

ADFA is a vastly different and better place than it was a decade ago. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of well-documented cases of ill treatment and sexual abuse that were finally exposed by the Grey Report in 1998. There is a feeling amongst some graduates that the Grey Report actually understated the problems, which, at their core, involved senior cadets having enormous unsupervised power over their juniors – making young women especially vulnerable. Anyone daring to complain was dissuaded from doing so on the basis that the people committing the abuse would have their careers adversely affected if they were disciplined. This seems similar to the present situation where those involved in the ‘Skype incident’ have so far escaped sanction. To ordinary people this seems strange and the matter should not require a lengthy investigation. It looks like a simple yes or no question – were you involved? If the answer is yes, then they should be shown the door.

As Stephen Smith has correctly pointed out, there is now a very real chance that a number of former ADFA cadets could launch a class action against the Commonwealth. In 2006 an individual case of abuse was settled for an undisclosed sum, so there is already some form of precedent. A class action would generate a great deal of concern for Defence because if it went ahead it would provide a very painful reminder of abuses that in some instances were ghastly – so bad that in the real world the perpetrators would be facing extended jail time. It is impossible to calculate the scale of damages that could be awarded to former victims, but at least such a financial penalty would be the best way of ensuring that these events are never repeated.


 

APDR at a glance