Defence force behaviour is better than you think

Media coverage of bad and criminal behaviour in our defence force has led many Australians to assume, incorrectly, that problems such as alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and youth suicide are prevalent in our defence force and occur at rates far higher than community norms or in other professions and industries.

It has also led to two widespread but mistaken public assumptions. 

First, that the ADF is somehow much different, or should be morally and culturally perfect, compared to the rest of Australia, despite it being disproportionately full of young Australians. 

Second, that the force’s problems are systemic in nature and the product of a supposedly institutionalised and dysfunctional culture, despite every independent inquiry into incidents of ADF misbehaviour concluding the opposite. 

Bad or criminal behaviour in our defence force cannot be totally avoided, just as it cannot be totally stamped out in Australia generally.

But it does occur at markedly lower rates in the ADF than in society at large and in most, perhaps all, other professions and industries. 

For example, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has noted that rates of sexual harassment (and particularly sexual assault) at ADFA are much lower by orders of magnitude than those occurring in Australia’s civil universities and TAFEs.

And that she is unable to quantify the difference in detail only because the civil tertiary institutions keep such inadequate records and are not as transparent and publicly accountable as our defence force. 

The community's cognitive dissonance about ADF misbehaviour mainly results from three causes. 

First, most Australians now have such little personal, or even extended family, experience of military service or war that they no longer “get” their defence force and are prone to misunderstandings, misconceptions or unreasonable expectations of behavioural perfection. 

 This ignorance is exacerbated because relevant knowledge is assumed, wrongly, merely from exposure to fictional and usually dramatised TV programs, films and computer games. 

Second, context and balance are often ignored:

  • The ADF is the third largest employer in the country (after Woolworths and Wesfarmers), but the number of reported incidents is usually not considered proportionally, or in context, about what are national (not sectoral) problems.
  • Over 50 per cent of ADF personnel are aged under 25 and two-thirds under 30 — a disproportionately young workforce compared to most professions and industries.
  • In terms of workplace conditions they also often live together collectively for all or most of every day, often for long periods and, at times, under considerable group and individual stress. Rather than, as civilians do,  just work or study together for a minority proportion of each day during a 5-day working week in suburban Australia.
  • Working in the ADF is by necessity more of a stressful environment operationally, even in training or exercising for war, than nearly all other professions.
  • ADF personnel are subject to the Defence Force Discipline Act as well as ordinary criminal law. This leads to false public assumptions that disciplinary proceedings and punishments for minor matters necessarily involve serious civil criminal offences.
  • Young men and women in the ADF are just as Australian as anyone else. They are not some form of moral praetorian guard somehow immune by nature to the social problems affecting Australian society generally.

Third, much of the inaccurate media coverage and consequent public misunderstandings are because the ADF is an easy target for lazy, unscrupulous or otherwise unprofessional journalism. 

People are naturally interested in our defence force.

It is also accountable, keeps good and publicly accessible records, and has a culture of encouraging complaints and usually acting swiftly on them (especially compared to most civil professions and industries). 

This enables the easy exploitation of stories sensationally, rather than reporting of them accurately or in context.

And it enables the media to avoid having to research or report on much worse, but less publicly recorded, misbehaviour in other Australian institutions and industries. 

Public confusion also occurs through the same ADF incidents being reported over and over again by the media as new when they are not. 

Finally, as a contextual example using publicly available figures, the annualised rate of serious sexual incidents in the ADF (using the widest possible definition), appears to be under one in five thousand (or 0.02 per cent of the Defence workforce). 

Moreover, during the, largely misinformed, public furore over the non-consensual filming incident at ADFA last year, did any journalist in the country ever survey any of Australia’s 38 civil universities to discover how many similar or worse incidents had happened at each and how they had been handled? 

Especially given that last year’s national survey of 1500 female university students by the National Union of Students claimed that one-third of female tertiary students have been sexually harassed or assaulted. 

This seemingly stark invidious comparison to the one serious incident among some 200-250 female cadets at ADFA has unfortunately been ignored by nearly all journalists and far too many Australians.

Monday, 30 January 2012
The Canberra Times, page 11