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.
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-
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.
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.
BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: Okay.
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.
Ministerial Support and Public Affairs,
Department of Defence,