First Lindy (and the dingo) and now our defence force: Why we need to establish the facts about allegations of harassment, bullying and abuse in the ADF

Not long after the last vestiges of public hysteria about Lindy Chamberlain were finally lanced there is both considerable irony and tragedy about an outburst of public hysteria on another issue. There are therefore seven principal reasons why a Royal Commission or a judicial inquiry is now the best way to resolve untested allegations about the past prevalence of bullying, harassment and, in some cases sexual abuse, in our defence force.

First, many Australians unfortunately believe — largely based on highly inaccurate and sensationalist opinionating and media reporting — that every one of the allegations made to the commercial law firm, DLA Piper, involve serious sexual abuse and that this is a current and pervasive problem in our defence force. 

Whereas the 775 allegations covering a 60-year period actually range instead from the very minor (such as bad taste rather than ill-disciplined or criminal behaviour) on one extreme, to probable serious criminal offences such as paedophilia on the other.

Moreover, rather than current, the unknown number of paedophilia claims seem to be mainly from 3-6 decades ago before the Navy ceased recruiting 13-year olds as officer cadets in 1955 and some 15-year old general entrants in 1984.

It is also noteworthy that Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, still oddly refuses to release any statistical break-up to allow informed debate to take account of comparative severity, context and perspective. Particularly given the very large size of the ADF workforce at any one time over the 60-year period involved, its functional diversity and geographic spread.

Informed debate surely needs to be grounded in facts, especially the numbers of new, genuine and serious cases among the 775 allegations compared to the number of less serious and minor ones. And the break-up between incidents that were misbehaviour (and not breaches of civil or military law) and incidents that constituted actual (ADF) disciplinary or (civil) criminal offences.

Informed debate would also be advanced by detail showing the number of the complaints that have already been examined, and to what extent, over the six decades involved.

Finally, it would be an advantage if informed debate could be based on determining the number of allegations (however large or small) that might seem plausible at first, but which on testing are more likely than not to be mistaken, exaggerated or false for various innocent reasons, or even vexatious or deliberately fraudulent.  

Second, contrary to the known statistical evidence and the conclusions of several independent judicial inquiries into specific incidents of misbehaviour by ADF personnel, many Australians also seem to believe that our defence force is somehow riddled with sexual and other abusers, a widespread cover-up has occurred that has allowed perpetrators to go unpunished, and that some of them might now hold middle or senior rank in the ADF. 

If such a situation of pervasive abuse was or is true then it must be fixed, victims given apologies and compensation, and perpetrators identified and punished. 

If it is not true, or the prevalence of workplace bullying, harassment and other abuse has been or is being greatly exaggerated — or varying types and degrees of behaviour are being incorrectly conflated as all constituting serious and actual crimes — then the collective reputation of our defence force must be restored. As must the individual reputations of former and serving defence force personnel. Not least because they are currently being traduced, and indeed victimised, through careless (or worse) allegations of blanket complicity through supposed acts of commission or omission. 

Third, whichever is the case, the ensuing risk of a serious loss of public confidence in our defence force — and its ability to undertake its essential national role — must be reversed by a Royal Commission establishing the truth.  If not a Royal Commission then at least a judicial inquiry.

Fourth, in the national interest, we also need to reverse serious losses of confidence by former and serving members of our defence force in the integrity of media reporting of defence matters. And, indeed, in their growing loss of confidence in the ability of the Australian community generally to discuss or debate defence issues objectively, fairly and calmly. 

Fifth, a Royal Commission or judicial inquiry would prevent further politicisation of an issue involving the ADF as a necessarily apolitical national institution. At a time of great party-political polarisation in the community generally, we need to avoid both the reality or the perception that either side of politics could be using these allegations to divert public attention from politically controversial matters.

Sixth, testing every allegation — including determining the number and type of the serious ones compared to the rest — are essential to find the truth, bring justice to victims, and protect the institutional reputation of our defence force and the individual reputations of its serving and former members. The “stolen generation” example in Aboriginal affairs provides a telling example of perpetual controversy when claims are frequently made but never tested in court or otherwise objectively. 

Seventh, the DLA Piper recommendation to further the issue instead through another private effort like theirs would solve nothing. No evidence is ever tested by this method and commercial and conceptual conflicts of interest abound. 

A serious problem preventing informed debate concerning the prevalence or not of bullying, harassment and sexual and other abuse in our defence force is that many Australians seem to be in denial about three key facts. 

  • Our defence force is comprised of fellow Australians. It is not a moral praetorian guard that has been, is or can be somehow divorced from the wider problems of Australian society. 
  • The statistical evidence continues to indicate that rates of sexual abuse of all types in our defence force are markedly below that for virtually all other institutions and organisations in our society involving young Australians 
  • Over the last two decades (and probably longer), not one independent judicial inquiry into specific incidents of defence force misbehaviour has concluded that it resulted from widespread systemic or cultural failings across the ADF.

No-one is denying that abuses of varying degrees and types have occurred in our defence force.  In such a large workforce over so many years — including times when societal attitudes about some types of behaviour were different — there will obviously have been such incidents.

The only real questions to be determined are the statistical level and extent of such acts, the currency and context of the claims about them, and the suggestion that such abuse was or remains systemic and the result of a deep-seated and force-wide cultural problem.

Justice for victims of bullying, harassment and sexual abuse, and justice for all the serving and former men and women of our defence force, mean untested allegations need to be substantiated or dismissed. Preferably by a Royal Commission but if not by a judicial inquiry. 

Some have suggested that such a commission or inquiry would be expensive, and that the funds might be better spent on compensating the victims even if their allegations remain untested. But this suggestion ignores that the truth must be determined to restore institutional and individual reputations. Just as much as it is needed to prevent compensating the as yet unknown number of complainants whose allegations might be, or are likely to be, found to be mistaken, exaggerated or even fraudulent when tested.

The ADA continues to believe that a truth and reconciliation process between perpetrators and victims should also be pursued, but not in place of a Royal Commission or judicial inquiry determining the facts.

Informed debate on these matters needs to be based on facts. Otherwise we will just have more of the types of public hysteria that framed Lindy Chamberlain.

Published 18 June 2012


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