Reporting of the non-consensual filming of consensual s-x between two cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), contrary to ADF discipline, has now evolved into incorrect assumptions and claims that affect informed public debate on defence force capability and operational matters.

The Australia Defence Association therefore enters the debate somewhat reluctantly. The ADA reminds those involved on all sides that civil control of the military by its ministers is a long-standing tradition in Australia. It is rightly entrenched in our constitutional system and the professional culture of the ADF.

There are, however, significant two-way responsibilities involved. Especially as our apolitical military are often legitimately prevented from defending themselves in public from uninformed, partisan or other biased criticism — and must rightly observe privacy restrictions and natural justice provisions when discussing individuals (and claims made by some individuals).

Moreover, the excessively rigid, non-responsive, over-centralisation of control over defence public affairs matters in the Department of Defence and the minister’s office over the past decade or so has added new problems that could be avoided by decentralising responsibility to ADF commanders at all levels again (as largely occurred until the late 1990s). Our defence force is now too often unable to defend its professional reputation collectively, and the reputation of its members individually, from ignorant, biased or sensationalist criticism. This is inequitable to say the least, but is also operationally and strategically stupid.

Just as the Attorney-General is expected to defend judges from unfair and incorrect criticism, and given the sensationalist and highly inaccurate manner in which the media has covered the recent incident at ADFA, comments today by the Minister for Defence correcting media misinformation, and incorrect assumptions by members of the public, are welcomed by the ADA.

As in all such cases, there are two sides to every story. As has occurred in many previous cases of real and supposed ADF scandals, the media has largely published and broadcast only one side. And again in this case with little or no understanding of precedents, context, nuance or the necessary professional and legal procedures of a modern defence force.

As the minister has now finally confirmed, several of the allegations broadcast as fact about this incident over the past two days are untrue. The female cadet involved did receive extensive counselling from the beginning. The ADF did investigate and handle her initial complaint professionally and appropriately. ADFA does have extensive and readily accessible means of lodging complaints about s-xual harassment and other matters, an extensive education program about them and a long record of effectively handling such issues. Contrary to her apparent claim (as broadcast), the cadet concerned was never asked to apologise to her classmates or the whole cadet body for going to the media (illegally). No one at ADFA or elsewhere in the defence force has downplayed or tried to cover up that her consensual s-xual intercourse should not have been filmed without her knowledge. From the beginning, the ADF has considered a serious disciplinary offence occurred even though the civil police were initially unsure as to whether a civil criminal offence had been committed. The Commandant of ADFA has rightly noted that such a serious abuse of professional standards and trust is likely to be a career-ending one for the perpetrators.

However, minister Smith’s implicit refusal at a media conference to support the difficult command decisions made by the Commandant of ADFA is unfair and quite disappointing. Surely he could have dismissed such factually ignorant questioning by noting that there was no evidence to suggest that anyone in the ADF chain of command had acted inappropriately.

The minister’s comments on the separate and summary disciplinary proceedings involving the female cadet are also highly unfortunate and perhaps inappropriate — just as they would be if a minister of the crown commented in such a way about similar matters before a civil court.

The cadet in question had pleaded guilty to these charges before the filming incident was known to her and publicly. She had legal advice and apparently chose not to request a delay in the proceedings. The charges were simple matters heard before a subordinate summary authority (presumably her squadron commander). It was not a “court case” or an overly formal proceeding as the minister’s comments might unfortunately lead those uninformed on defence force disciplinary law to believe.

It is surely constitutionally inappropriate (at least) for the Minister for Defence to be perceived as interfering in defence force disciplinary proceedings. Particularly when they were minor matters involving the lowest jurisdiction of such proceedings and when a minister could not possibly know, or be expected to know, all the circumstances, facts and ramifications involved. Or indeed all the leadership, associated welfare and development issues involving the person charged.

Finally, despite the current sensationalist and invalid media clamour, the filming without consent incident at ADFA (involving cadets who have only been there some 10 weeks) does not prove or even indicate a systemic cultural problem in the defence force about gender matters. Just as occasional similar incidents at other Australian tertiary institutions do not necessarily indicate systemic issues in such institutions either.

The real issues here about s-xual norms and social media are surely more general ones in the wider Australian society from which our defence force is necessarily recruited and that it generally reflects. Particularly among the younger age cohorts that the ADF employs disproportionately in comparison to most other professions and industries.

The biggest lesson in this case is that the whole matter could have been resolved in much more detail, much swifter and in a much more effective manner for everyone concerned if the Commandant of ADFA had been allowed to explain the facts from the beginning. Including when Channel Ten was first approached by the female cadet with claims about supposed ADF indifference to her situation that we now know were not correct.

Instead the commandant has been wrongly made a scape-goat by the media and some comments by minister Smith have unfortunately not helped correct such disgraceful scape-goating.

Another lesson worth pursuing legitimately by the media is the quality of advice on defence force professional matters the minister is receiving from his political staff.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey