Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Note: this story discusses sexual assault.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has addressed the Australian Defence Force’s pervasive culture of abuse and sexual violence the same way she addressed an allegation of rape in her office: with inaction.

When former staffer Brittany Higgins was found half-dressed and unconscious on a couch in Reynold’s office she was treated like a nuisance for the alleged abuse she suffered. Her complaint went largely unaddressed, the office was steam cleaned and Higgins was made to feel her job was on the line.

Meanwhile, reports of abuse in the ADF continue to climb under Reynolds with no sweeping reform or royal commission into the pervasive culture of abuse and sexual violence.

Defence’s century of sexual abuse

The first review into the culture of sexual abuse in the ADF was conducted in 1913. There have been dozens of inquiries, reviews and reports since, along with continuous public declarations of “zero tolerance” as rates of sexual assault and misconduct remained steady.

When Reynolds was appointed to Defence in 2019 — the second woman after Marise Payne to hold the portfolio — amid ongoing sexual abuse scandals, the rhetoric focused largely on her role as a woman, rather than that she was the Army Reserve’s first female brigadier.

In her first speech to the Senate in 2014, she discussed barriers to women advancing in the military, along with the “continuous criticism, review and reform” the department had been subject to.

Anyone expecting change from either Reynolds and the department’s grand declarations of reform would be sorely disappointed. Abuse reports have climbed under Reynolds.

Flinders University associate professor Ben Wadham, a veteran and former military investigator who is concluding a three-year study on defence abuse, tells Crikey nothing has been done to adequately address the issue.

“They’ve been looking at addressing the same thing for over 100 years,” he said. “A lot of taxpayers’ money goes into shifting the deck chairs and not a lot of actual progress happening.”

Reynolds incapable of enacting reform

The number of charges for sexual assault laid against military personnel almost doubled in 2019-20.

The ADF’s sexual misconduct prevention and response office has recorded an increase in personnel seeking support for how to deal with disclosures around sexual assault. Last year 235 people directly affected by sexual misconduct sought advice.

Those uncomfortable with reporting serious abuse using the ADF’s internal mechanisms can lodge reports with the defence force ombudsman. Reports of historic and recent abuse lodged with the ombudsman soared in recent months. It received 482 reports in the 2018-19 financial year, 500 in 2019-2020, and 504 between July 2020 and January 2021. It could not provide a breakdown of which reports related to recent events.

The HMAS Leeuwin, the most reported location for abuse, is in Reynolds’ home state of Western Australia.

This increase in sexual abuse charges could signal a crackdown on unacceptable behaviour. The increase in reporting could also be due to awareness of the system and for those seeking reparation payments through the ombudsman for historic abuse before the scheme closes.

Wadham isn’t convinced.

“[It] comes down to what’s the accountability in the institution at the moment,” he said.

“Defence overlooks the culture and addresses things in an administrative fashion, which means nothing ever moves in any meaningful way … It never forms a consistent coherent policy [or] institutional cultural sort of approach.”

As for all the reports and reviews: “[Defence] see this as kind of civilian interference and they don’t think of it in cultural terms or people terms or trauma terms. They look at it administratively.”

In 2015 Reynolds was also involved in reviewing the Liberal Party’s gender disparity and boosting the number of high-ranking women — and we all know how that went.

Is Reynolds on her way out?

On Tuesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison rebuked Reynolds for failing to inform him about Higgins’ allegation. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has demanded she resign as Peter Dutton licks his lips from the sideline, waiting to swoop in (and undo all that palaver about “advancing gender equity” with Reynolds’ appointment).

“She managed the staffer of Parliament House exactly the same [as she manages abuse claims in the ADF],” Wadham said. “Reynolds is just more of the same.”

Defence tells Crikey cultural change is ongoing: “Where allegations of sexual misconduct are raised, Defence is committed to supporting those affected and to holding perpetrators to account.”

This may include suspension, disciplinary action and convictions.

Defence’s current culture strategy is the “Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture 2017-22“.

“It underpins Defence’s commitment to driving authentic, sustainable change and creating an environment where all Defence people are accountable for a more positive and inclusive culture.”

Crikey did not receive a response from Reynold’s office by deadline.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

Peter Fray

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