Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The recent scandals in the Australian Defence Force have overlooked the real problems with the institution.

These are structural. Until these are fixed the problems will continue.


Surprisingly, perhaps, it appears that Defence Chief Angus Houston wasn’t misreported. “If you draw comparisons against similar institutions,” he began, before helpfully explaining he meant,  “ – I am talking about university campuses – I think the number of incidents of this kind is less at ADFA.” How, one wonders, does Houston know this? “My own kids went off to uni and I got a feel for what happens.”

Let’s start with the first problem in Houston’s formulation. ADFA isn’t a normal institution.

Most students emerge from uni with a massive HECS bill, as well as having to pay for unsubsidised food and lodging for years before facing further uncertainty in the jobs market. ADFA graduates leave without debt; enjoy large servings of healthy food; are put up in accommodation with top-class facilities; and study in ideal conditions with good lecturers in small classes. Oh, and they’re paid between $35,000 and $50,000 each year. Even the cost of textbooks is covered.

This is hugely different from community ‘norms’. Expecting officer cadets to refrain from skyping their casual sexual encounters doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. Yet apparently, according to Huston, who’s styled the ‘commander’ of the forces, perhaps we should expect this sort of thing.

If the CDF had simply retained a dignified silence, there would be nothing to say. Nevertheless, by choosing to speak and put himself so at odds with community values, Huston has blown-open a new issue: one that goes to the heart of our forces and the way they perform their role. He has passed cases of ammunition to those who strenuously believe in the military, but are currently bitterly disappointed in its management and culture. Because that’s the very group that are now demanding change. People who are tired of the continuous platitudes being trotted out once again by the “command” group – recycled verbiage completely at odds with the realities practised on the ground.

In just two crisp sentences Houston managed to completely trash both the military’s reputation and his own. So much for the idea that the services are professional institutions. His comments negate the idea that there is anything ‘special’ about being an officer holding the Queen’s commission. This is not just my view – it’s some of his own officers who are (privately) furious with their Chief. Leave aside, for a moment, the bizarre claim that students elsewhere engage in regular, real-time transmissions of sexual encounters. (Where, exactly, does this occur? And does Houston really believe officer cadets shouldn’t be held to a higher standard, particularly given they’ll be working together in close proximity for the next 20 years?) If the Chief’s understanding of modern society is dependent upon anecdotal evidence from his sons, this might go some way towards explaining the current chaos that is enveloping our armed forces.

Military effectiveness can be judged on three critical elements; personnel, equipment and operations. Let’s examine each in turn. The ADFA scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. A rich seam of problems weaves its way throughout the military in each of these areas. Just casually glance down the ranks at any parade and it’s obvious that the forces are no reflection of modern Australian society. It’s an Anglo-Saxon, white, “boy’s own” military that reflects the make-up of the country in the 1950s. Women remain a token presence, as do ethnic minorities. It should hardly be surprising that the institution’s cultural foundations reflect this antiquated view of society.

The forces have also proved unable to even ensure they’re properly equipped for fighting. The Navy’s admitted the amphibious fleet has rusted up – fortunately the Royal Navy found a spare ship it could sell us surplus to its own requirements, otherwise we’d be without. Yesterday news arrived that there could be a big gap before the Joint Strike Fighter is available -- Houston was the Air force chief when the decision was made committing us to this aircraft. The military’s record on equipment purchases isn’t good.

All this could be forgiven if we were actually managing to find a war effectively: unfortunately, we’re not. For over half a decade now our major international commitment has been a commitment to the Security Force in Afghanistan, but not everyone would consider the developments that have taken place to represent progress. Opium has now become the biggest cash crop of our province and our policy of targeted assassinations and night raids now includes an Innocent former governor as well as many other civilians as its victims. The diggers deployment is also directly responsible for replenishing the Taliban’s coffers. They charge a levy on every truck that’s allowed through to bring supplies to our diggers. Leaving that war to the strategists has failed to offer even a faint glimmer of the prospect of success at any time in the future.

It’s a pity for Houston that he’s been caught up in this debacle. He’s about to leave . . . a few more months and he would have got off scot free. He has tried to do the right thing in the past. His comments quoted at the beginning of this article are accurate, but not entirely representative of his attitude. He also said he was “absolutely shocked” by the incident and has commented positively on the role of the male cadet who exposed the event. This makes it all the more surprising that he attempted to remark on community mores. Perhaps it reveals the full extent of the disconnect between the military and modern society.

Two years ago Houston established a Reference Group on Women in the ADF. Although this hasn’t met for a long time, no one doubts he has attempted to do what he can to make the forces “more representative of the community in which it lives and serves”. Nevertheless an indelible image remains. Individuals may attempt to rattle and shake the bars, but the cultural barriers are firmly fixed in place. They will not be moved unless the political establishment is prepared to exert itself. No one doubts the necessity of the single-service institutions running year-long courses to prepare officers for their initial appointments. The advantage of postgraduate training for those in mid-career is also proven. Whether it is necessary for the Defence Force to run its own university, pushing undergraduates through a bachelor’s degree, is quite another matter.

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