Australia — Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith on ADFA Skype Incident

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Well the Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith, has lashed out at Defence depart­ment offi­cials over the han­dling of a case involv­ing a female cadet who was filmed hav­ing sex.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Eva Cox is the chair of the Women’s Elec­toral Lob­by and she says the way the case was han­dled is a sign the prob­lems with­in the Defence Force are sys­temic.

[Excerpt from interview]

EVA COX: They always seem to be push­ing against acknowl­edg­ing that they’ve got a prob­lem. It comes up again and again and again. They con­stant­ly claim it’s a one-off, it’s different. 

And they’ve han­dled this one extra­or­di­nar­i­ly bad­ly, which says this is sys­temic. This is not a one-off. This is a prob­lem with the whole way that Defence sees the issues as some­thing which is an indi­vid­ual prob­lem but not an organ­i­sa­tion­al one.

[End excerpt]

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Eva Cox from the Women’s Elec­toral Lobby. 

For more, Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith is with us in the stu­dio now. 

Many thanks for join­ing us.

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s a pleasure.

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: You prob­a­bly would­n’t be tak­ing issue with what Eva Cox is say­ing there about this problem.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think there are two things that need to be han­dled very care­ful­ly. First­ly, we just need to work our way through the indi­vid­ual cir­cum­stances of the actu­al case and the way in which that’s been han­dled by the Defence Force, bear­ing in mind that whilst oth­er peo­ple might be able to come to a con­clud­ed view about guilt or inno­cence, that’s not some­thing that I have the lux­u­ry of. So I have to be care­ful about what I say in respect of the case itself.

Sec­ond­ly, I do have to think through very care­ful­ly whether what we’ve seen does reflect some broad­er sys­temic issue. Now, that’s obvi­ous­ly some­thing that I want to do in a sense at leisure. It’s not some­thing that I’m going to respond to quickly. 

So we’ve got to deal with the cir­cum­stances of the han­dling of this case and then look at the ques­tion of whether more needs to be done by way of more gen­er­al issues or sys­temic issues.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: You were going to get some answers last night from the Defence Force Acad­e­my on a cou­ple of crit­i­cal issues. The first one is who made this woman, who made the deci­sion to make the woman involved pub­licly apol­o­gise to her fel­low cadets for going pub­lic? And who decid­ed to go ahead with this dis­ci­pli­nary hear­ing or ini­tial­ly go ahead with this unre­lat­ed dis­ci­pli­nary hear­ing? Have you got answers to those?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think three things. First­ly, I’ve received some advice late last night from the chief of the Defence Force through the vice chief of the Defence Force who, in a port­fo­lio sense, has man­age­ment respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Acad­e­my and for issues relat­ing to train­ing and the like. 

As in invari­ably the case, when you receive advice, whilst it resolves some issues, it rais­es ques­tions about oth­ers. And giv­en the hour of the day, I haven’t yet had the chance to speak to the chief of the Defence Force about it, but I’ll do that in the course of the morning.

I think a cou­ple of things. First­ly, there’s very strong advice that the young woman was pro­vid­ed with appro­pri­ate coun­selling, sup­port, psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selling and the like, peer sup­port from the first moment.

Sec­ond­ly, there’s very strong advice that the Com­modore of the Acad­e­my did not put the young woman in the posi­tion that has been assert­ed, name­ly requir­ing her to apol­o­gise. So there’s very strong advice on that. 

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: So let’s just clar­i­fy that she was­n’t asked-


BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: ‑to apologise.

STEPHEN SMITH: There’s very strong advice to me that the asser­tion that has been made pub­licly was­n’t the case. 


STEPHEN SMITH: All of that, how­ev­er, is coloured by the point I made yes­ter­day. At the same time the events are unfold­ing with respect to the Skype mat­ter, the young woman con­cerned has been processed for oth­er mat­ters unre­lat­ed which occurred back in March, for dis­ci­pli­nary mat­ters. The oral advice I had yes­ter­day was that those mat­ters were dealt with in part but not in whole.

The for­mal advice I have overnight is that the mat­ter was dealt with to its final­i­ty yes­ter­day, includ­ing con­vic­tion and pun­ish­ment of minor offences, which involved alco­hol and absent with­out leave. And the pun­ish­ment imposed for those mat­ters was five days’ restric­tion, which is essen­tial­ly five days’ restric­tion to base and one day’s pay being docked. Now that I’ve got access to the full facts and cir­cum­stances, it’s quite clear that at pre­cise­ly the same moment that the young woman was advised of the Skype inci­dent, she was charged with these matters. 

Now I regard that, as I said yes­ter­day, as being some­where from com­plete­ly insen­si­tive to com­plete­ly stu­pid. The prob­lem for the offi­cials deal­ing with the mat­ter is that now colours the entire view of this circumstance.

So I make the same point today that I did yes­ter­day that the deal­ing of anoth­er dis­ci­pli­nary mat­ter at the same time as the inves­ti­ga­tion was start­ing on the Skype inci­dent, if I can describe it in that way, rais­es very seri­ous issues of judg­ment and runs the risk of colour­ing the entire per­cep­tion of the way in which this has been han­dled. Now, the advice I have is that it’s acknowl­edged by the Com­man­dant of the Acad­e­my and by the Vice Chief and the Chief of the Defence Force that doing this was a very seri­ous error of judg­ment. And there’s no doubt about that. The dif­fi­cul­ty now in terms of per­cep­tion, leav­ing aside facts and cir­cum­stances, it’s very easy now to make the asser­tion that this was done in response-

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: To tar­nish her, to tar­nish her.

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑in response to the oth­er inves­ti­ga­tion. Now that is a per­cep­tion which is not just unfor­tu­nate, it’s deeply invid­i­ous. And I could not be stronger in my response that dou­ble-track­ing those two process­es was a most seri­ous error of judg­ment. And that unfor­tu­nate­ly not only now colours my view of events but colours the pub­lic view of events.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Who’s being held account­able for that error in judgement?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Com­man­dant of the Acad­e­my, through the senior offi­cials, acknowl­edges that he was aware of these mat­ters and that it was a seri­ous error of judg­ment by him — and I agree with that — a most seri­ous error of judg­ment which now colours the entire per­cep­tion and that’s deeply regrettable.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: And based on — and that infor­ma­tion you have, do you have con­fi­dence from the head of the Defence Force Academy?

STEPHEN SMITH: As I said yes­ter­day, I need to care­ful­ly con­sid­er these issues. I want to have a dis­cus­sion with the Chief and the Vice Chief and delib­er­ate about these mat­ters before I make any pub­lic com­ment in that respect.

There are now, regret­tably, two issues. There is a very seri­ous issue which is the sub­ject of a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion. There’s also now a very seri­ous issue of the way in which this mat­ter has been han­dled. And it’s a mat­ter of deep regret to me that the issue has moved to how defence has han­dled this, rather than deal­ing clear­ly and method­i­cal­ly with a very seri­ous crim­i­nal investigation.

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Let’s go to the sys­temic issues. And we have a com­ment from one of the train­ers who trains the ADF and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of the per­son­nel there and also trains the NRL. And he says, he made the com­ment in The Age today that the issues are very sim­i­lar to the respect for women as a start­ing point.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve made the point that the chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief, the Ser­vice Chiefs, could not be stronger in their own belief and com­mit­ment that the Defence Force has to bring itself cul­tur­al­ly into the mod­ern day, that there has to be respect for women in the work­place, that there has to- BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: But we hear this, Min­ster, all the time.

STEPHEN SMITH: I under­stand that.

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: We’ve heard this. 

STEPHEN SMITH: The point I’m mak­ing is — well, I’m not sure that peo­ple would say, for exam­ple, with the NRL, that there’s a per­fect out­come there, whilst peo­ple would acknowl­edge that progress has been made. 

I’m not going to com­pare the NRL with the ADF. But on my judg­ment and on the judg­ment of the senior offi­cers and ser­vice chiefs, whilst progress has been made, there is a very long way to go.

I made the point yes­ter­day, when I was told about the par­al­lel track­ing of these two mat­ters, I was appalled. That view was shared by the Chief of the Defence Force. He was­n’t aware of it and nor was I. But the per­cep­tion that it rais­es is deeply invidious.

Now, we want to make sure that the atti­tudes, the approach­es and the response of indi­vid­u­als in the work­place in the Aus­tralian Defence Force — whether it’s army, navy or air force — reflects mod­ern Aus­tralian values. 

Those val­ues have deeply entrenched in them respect for people’s rights, respect for peo­ple, your work­mates, your pro­fes­sion­al col­leagues in the work­place and, as I said, gen­er­al­ly, not in respect to any par­tic­u­lar case. 

I can’t think of a greater betray­al of trust than the cir­cum­stances sug­gest­ed by the so-called Skype mat­ter. More gen­er­al­ly, peo­ple need to under­stand that in the mod­ern day what you do online, what you do in the dig­i­tal world, inevitably becomes pub­lic. And there’s a qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ence between what you do in pri­vate and what you allow or run the risk of becom­ing public. 

MICHAEL ROWLAND: You say all this. And it’s been said these cas­es repeat­ed­ly come up. How do you, as the min­is­ter though, try to assert your con­trol on a depart­ment that his­to­ry has shown has held enor­mous sway and cost the careers of for­mer Defence Ministers?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that goes to part of the judg­ment I now need to make is whether there’s a need to do more in terms of gen­er­al or sys­temic issues. That’s now a very seri­ous mat­ter that I need to contemplate. 

I also have some con­cerns, which I have pre­vi­ous­ly expressed, about the way in which Defence process­es deal with such dis­ci­pli­nary or con­duct mat­ters. And with the HMAS Suc­cess report, which I tabled in Par­lia­ment some time ago, we’ll receive from Com­mis­sion­er Gyles in the course of this year a sec­ond report which goes to how Defence han­dles and deals with these dis­ci­pli­nary matters. 

When you’re deal­ing with the Defence Dis­ci­pline Act, where people’s rights are in play, which may well from time to time throw up the pos­si­bil­i­ty or the real­i­ty of a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion, you have to be very care­ful about the way in which you pro­ceed and don’t tram­ple over people’s rights.

But I do think that there’s some improve­ment we can make there. So in the mean­time, in terms of try­ing to ensure that the Defence Force is an attrac­tive place for young women to forge a career, that women are involved at all lev­els in the Defence Force, whilst progress has been made there is a long way to go.

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: I put it to you, Min­is­ter, that as a woman too — and I think I can put this ques­tion — is that it’s not just about women. And of course the women, these issues around women and the treat­ment of women, it head­lines when it comes to the Defence Force. 

But there seems to be a sys­temic prob­lem with regard to men and women in the way peo­ple are treat­ed in terms of those mod­ern val­ues that you talk about.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well let me respond in two ways. First­ly, every time a regret­table mat­ter like this comes to pub­lic focus, we have to be care­ful to make sure that we don’t allow that to colour our entire view. 

Yes, there have been, in recent times and over the past, a num­ber of deeply regret­table inci­dences where peo­ple have not con­duct­ed them­selves per­son­al­ly in a man­ner in which they should and a man­ner which falls well below com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards and a way in which reflects very adverse­ly on the Defence Force because they’re effec­tive­ly doing it in uni­form. There’s zero tol­er­ance for that from the Ser­vice Chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Force. 

But sec­ond­ly, we should not lose sight of the fact that whilst these inci­dents occurred — and we’re try­ing to make real progress on that front — every day I see exam­ples of peo­ple in the Defence Force, either civil­ian or in uni­form, who do great things. 

But we do have to have peo­ple under­stand, whether they have been at the acad­e­my for eight weeks or been in the Defence Force for eight years, that respect for your work­mates in the work­place, whether they’re men or women, is an absolute essen­tial these days. 

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just very, very quick­ly, just to clear some­thing up, you said the woman was offered full coun­selling and sup­port from the very start. Was it at the start when she report­ed the case or when she went to the media?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, from the first moment. She was advised by-

MICHAEL ROWLAND: [Indis­tinct] clear that up.

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑a Defence inves­ti­ga­tor that this mat­ter had occurred. And from that first moment, my very strong advice is that that sup­port was made avail­able to her.

The point I make is regret­tably all of that is now coloured by what I describe as a par­al­lel track­ing of oth­er mat­ters which should have been held in abeyance and not dealt with until this very seri­ous mat­ter had been resolved in one way or the other.

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Which is [indis­tinct] as you were say­ing, a lot of what hap­pens and then besmirch­es the entire force. Many thanks for join­ing us. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. 

BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Stephen Smith, the Defence Minister. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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