Inquiries ordered in Australian Defence scandal

By Greg Ansley

Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith has ordered a series of inquiries to force of change of culture in the Australian military that could include combat roles for women.

The inquiries were announced yesterday in the widening wake of yet another scandal at the elite Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, in which a male cadet filmed a sex act with an 18-year-old colleague and sent it via Skype to other trainee officers.

The resulting row soured relations between Smith and senior military officers, and has forced academy Commandant Bruce Kafer to take leave while investigations begin.

Defence and Federal Police inquiries already under way will now be joined by another by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who will examine the treatment of women at the academy for the Human Rights Commission, and an independent inquiry of the management of the Skype allegations.

"Ms Broderick's work is the first step in the comprehensive review of the culture both within ADFA and the ADF to address ongoing areas of concern in relation to promoting appropriate conduct, including the treatment of women, alcohol use and use of social media and representational behaviour more generally," Smith said.

He has also instructed Defence Secretary Ian Watt to seek legal advice on a rush of similar complaints - some alleging rape and concealed crimes by senior officers - that followed the young cadet's case.

Smith said all options would be on the table and "I don't exclude a further legal or judicial look at some of those issues".

The latest scandal has important implications for a Defence Force trying to attract more women to a military facing serious problems in recruitment and retention, and under increasing strains from foreign commitments.

The moves announced by Smith yesterday will accelerate efforts to change the way the Defence Force regards women well beyond the problems they face with sexism and abuse.

This will include potential combat roles, first proposed 10 years ago and raised again by Smith's predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon, after Labor won power from former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.

Although women serve in the Australian Defence Force on warships and fly in aircraft operating in war zones, they cannot serve in the infantry, artillery, armoured units or in roles such as clearance diving, airfield defence or combat engineering.

"When it comes to women in the ADF, including in combat roles, an opportunity for women should be determined on the basis of physical and intellectual capacity not on gender," Smith said.

"So the Chief of the Defence Force will bring forward that matter as a matter of priority."

Immediately, Smith's inquiries will focus on the management of the latest scandal, and the treatment of women at the academy and the wider defence culture.

This will include a "cultural stocktake" and review of alcohol and binge drinking, the use of social media.

"Drinking and inappropriate behaviour often go hand in hand and we continue to need to understand better how to manage unhealthy drinking cultures," Smith said.

"The impact of social media has created new challenges for the ADF and the Defence organisation.

"Things which are conducted privately may be appropriate, but they are not appropriate if they are conducted in public, including through the use of social media."

Problems at the academy were exposed a decade ago, with an inquiry into "bastardisation and sexual harassment" at the academy recommending a number of changes that last week's revelations indicates have not been successful.

The Defence Force has also faced other, similar scandals since, including last month's report into a culture of "predatory sexual behaviour and tribalism" on the supply ship HMAS Success, in which a bounty was operated for sex with a female sailor, others collaborated to avoid random alcohol testing, and crew members who tried to speak out were verbally and physically intimidated.

Smith has been scathing of the manner in which the female cadet at the heart of the Skype allegations has been treated after her decision to speak publicly to the Ten Network.

The cadet said she had spoken out because she was unhappy at the way her complaint had been handled.

Smith's public anger at the allegations - which infuriated senior officers who felt he had reacted before the full facts were known - was increased when the cadet faced a hearing on unrelated charges of misusing alcohol and absence without leave, which he said fell between "extremely insensitive and completely stupid", adding that Kafer had made a "serious error of judgment".

Kafer had since been ordered to take leave "in the best interest of [the academy] and also in the best interest of Defence", Smith said.

The woman's allegations have prompted a rush of other claims that will not be investigated.

These include allegations outlined in an internal defence report obtained by the Daily Telegraph, which admitted that officers had lied to ministers and fabricated evidence against an 18-year-old male cadet who was forced to resign after he was bashed and raped.

Another victim said she had been driven to numerous suicide attempts, suffered from a mental illness and the eating disorder bulimia nervosa but had never received any assistance from the military or the Government.

- NZ Herald

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