Tony Abbott is right to call Stephen Smith’s announcement about opening up frontline roles for female soldiers a “distraction”, but not in the way he thinks. Smith has cleverly seized on the crisis of confidence in the ADF engendered by the ADFA scandal to push through a reform the military wants, but has been unable to get from successive governments, since it was first mooted in 2001.

Since then, women have taken on a number of roles in near-frontline positions in Afghanistan, but without the restriction on combat roles being lifted.

Greg Combet raised it again in 2009, asking for a review of physical standards that would be applied in a unisex fashion to combat roles.

The issue two years ago split along ideological lines. Conservatives seem to have an innate distaste for the idea of women in combat roles. Liberal MP and former Army officer Stuart Robert criticised Combet and said women weren’t cut out for combat. Arch-reactionary Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby complained that woman would disrupt the “strong mateship” of the army because the “natural attraction we have between the s-xes would invariably lead to attractions.” Funny how it’s always about s-x for Wallace, though he wasn’t alone — the head of the RSL suggested combat roles might affect female fertility. Another Liberal MP Bob Baldwin, suggested women weren’t psychological ready for combat. Eva Cox, on the other hand, suggested critics of women in the Army grow up.

That women currently can’t serve in frontline positions generates a sort of vicious circle regarding their role in the ADF. Critics want to have it both ways. Recall Alan Jones’s disgusting sneer at Brigadier Lyn McDade last year, lamenting that “no one’s got any idea” how “this woman” became a Brigadier. “I don’t know what Brigade she’s lead,” he spat.

But the push to remove the limits on female soldiers is from the brass. Former Chief of the Defence Force Chris Barrie mocked the continuing restrictions on women in the Army when Combet raised the issue. The driver is the deep concern about attracting and retaining ADF personnel when the labour market is nearing full employment and the ADF has limited flexibility to lift remuneration to make itself more attractive.

That’s why there’s a fundamental connection between the ADFA scandal and Smith’s decision on opening up frontline roles. An Army that makes itself a female-unfriendly environment, that refuses to address misogyny or tolerates a locker-room mentality, that prevents women from excelling in their chosen profession, is making itself a deeply unattractive employer for not much less than half its potential employees.

Like a good reforming politician, Smith has not wasted a crisis, but seized on it to push through a major reform, while opponents and critics are having to fight several issues at once. The Coalition — which like The Australian has struggled to work out how to use the ADFA scandal to attack Labor — is now hampered in its response since Tony Abbott, a man with no little gender baggage, yesterday endorsed opening up combat roles to women. Of course, Mr Abbott has been known to change his mind on issues for political gain, and may yet do so on this one.

Since Stephen Smith was packed off to Foreign Affairs by Kevin Rudd as a consequence of giving Julia Gillard a super-ministry, his political skills have been left under-utilised by Labor, particularly in Foreign Affairs, where he was a sockpuppet for his Prime Minister. Occasionally — such as during the asylum seeker stalemate over the Oceanic Viking — he’s had the opportunity to remind us of them.

Like Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner did, he conveys the impression that, for all the witlessness and talking points silliness of this iteration of Federal Labor, there are one or two grown-ups around. Still, Defence has made fools of any number of ministers. Just ask Peter Reith, Robert Hill and Brendan Nelson, none of them duds. Smith will need to stay on his mettle if he’s to do something few of his recent predecessors have achieved — emerge from Defence with reputation intact.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey