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As Australia changes, so must the ADF

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COMMENTS

14 September 2012 14:34

Dr Ben Wadham is a former serving member of the Army. He is now a sociologist at Flinders University's School of Education, researching civil-military relations.

The recent presentation by Defence Minister Stephen Smith to the Lowy Institute on the 2013 Defence White Paper was dominated by traditional concerns with strategy, capabilities, operational capacity and budgets. Tucked away in Smith's presentation is the matter of Defence institutional reform and culture.

On this front it has been a very busy few years for the ADF since the 2009 White Paper. There was the HMAS Success matter, abuse of social media and of course the Skype Affair, all of which led to numerous reviews of ADF institutional culture and practice culminating in the Pathway to Change document. The Black Review of the Defence Accountability Framework also stands as a significant document of institutional reform.

These matters drill down to something the ADF has consistently named as core business in the 2000 and 2009 White Papers: people. In 2000 the ADF acknowledged that to meet its challenges of the new millennium it required a 'substantial pool of highly competent professionals — especially at the mid-levels of the Defence Force'. Nine years later, the 2009 White Paper argued that 'people are at the heart of delivering the Defence capability'. What do these words mean?

In an orthodox sense they refer to safe and equitable working conditions: good pay, positive career opportunities with strong local command and unit cohesion, a sense of professionalism and good support for families in a highly transient occupation. Both of the preceding White Papers outline leadership, recruitment, retention, diversity and workforce integration as important ongoing challenges.

But there has been an important shift since 2009 (at least if you follow the journey the ADF has taken in the suite of recent reviews). In the past there has been little official recognition that the military organisation has specific cultural characteristics that heighten the potential for particular forms of (anti) social behaviour.

But as General Hurley explained recently, it is no longer acceptable to use the bad apples excuse to explain misbehaviour. This has been the rationalisation that senior leadership, serving and retired, have rolled out over the last 40 years.

Only recently the Sexual Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has released phase 2 of her Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. The wide-ranging inquiry reported on a male-dominated culture where women's career progress is 'significantly impaired by career obstacles, poor understanding of women's needs and sometimes poor behaviour'. Elizabeth Broderick is reported as saying:

To be a strong force into the future and a first-class employer with a first-class reputation, the ADF must address the problem of a shrinking talent pool, the significant cost of unwanted departures, the lack of diversity among leadership and the unacceptable behaviour sometimes faced by women...Increasing the representation of women and improving their pathways into leadership goes to the very heart of the sustainability and operational effectiveness of the ADF.

A key challenge the ADF faces as it modernises and keeps pace with civil society is cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is by definition a challenge to cultural sameness. An institution of 86% men, of which around 90% are Australian-born, will struggle in different ways to increase diversification. That is to be expected. And planned for.

For mine, the military justice system, and its policing and investigative capacity, sits at the heart of people issues in the ADF. As personnel of difference begin to grow within the ADF, and as women are placed in frontier occupations like the infantry, their passage must be aided by a strong military justice system. This includes associated practices such as improved complaints reporting and robust recording procedures.

An across-service, professionalised policing system with standardised operating procedures, training, resourcing and equipment constitute the basis of this direction. The ADF has neglected service policing for too long, and there are cultural mindsets that inhibit effective and collaborative policing across the services.

The White Paper must take the opportunity to reinforce the importance of people and cultural reform. The Broderick Report is an early indicator of the scope of attention required. A respectful and equitable organisational environment for women and people of diverse backgrounds might appear secondary to 'real' concerns like strategy and operational effectiveness, but they are the bedrock upon which such activities can be operationalised.

Photo by Flickr user Leonard John Matthews.

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