The Australian Defence Force Academy has been in the headlines in the last week, after an 18-year-old woman cadet went to the press with claims that she had been filmed without her consent having sex with a fellow cadet, and that the footage had been broadcast to several other male cadets at the Academy via Skype. When “Kate” complained to her superiors, her case was ignored, so she went public. She was then disciplined for breaking the Academy’s rules about fraternizing, and the rule about talking to the press.
The Skype scandal has brought many other stories out of the woodwork; evidently, “Kate” is not the only person who experienced sexual violence at ADFA. On Saturday, The Australian published a wrenching op-ed, written by an anonymous man, now an attorney, who enrolled at ADFA over twenty years ago. Not long after he arrived, he was raped by a group of senior cadets who were just a few years older than him. “Shortly after I was attacked, the same gang attacked and gang-raped a female cadet in my division,” he writes. “No one was charged and nothing was done about it. One of the perpetrators said openly that ‘she was a drunk slut, she had it coming’. That person is now a senior officer in the ADF.”
His case was not investigated until years later, either. It was swept under the rug, just as “Kate”’s might have been, had she not broken the rules and gone public.
The Minister for Defence has acted fast and, in my opinion, wisely, by defending “Kate”’s actions and by refusing to back the ADFA official who disciplined her. That official, Commodore Bruce Kafer, has been put on leave as of Monday and it is expected that if he returns, it will be in a different capacity or role. Furthermore, Defence Minister Smith has called for a comprehensive strategy aimed at understanding the culture of the Defence Force and the colleges, and at making them less sexually hostile environments. In addition to an inquiry into the treatment of women at ADFA, to be led by Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Smith has called for:
A ”cultural stocktake” of alcohol and binge drinking, the use of social media and personal conduct in the Defence Force;
A review by the Inspector-General of the ADF into the management of incidents and complaints within Defence, with specific attention regarding the treatment of victims;
An independent review of the dozens of allegations of sexual abuse and bastardry raised since the Skype scandal erupted, and
A panel of university vice-chancellors and college heads to examine issues around the behaviour and culture of residential university students.
Not everyone is on board, though. The Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, says that what happened to “Kate” was an isolated incident, and that because the students involved had only been at ADFA for a few months, their behavior was not representative of the culture of the Academy. Unfortunately, the stories coming out of the woodwork this week, from men and women who have spent time at ADFA, seem to contradict Houston’s claims. Defence lobbyists and Australia’s opposition leader, Tony Abbott, have called the inquiries a “distraction.”
Far be it from me to agree with Mr. Abbott, a man not known for his progressive gender politics, on almost anything. But I think it’s true that these inquiries to have the potential to become mere Band-Aids or damage control, rather than a move toward real cultural change. Smith, to his credit, is talking the talk. As the head of an institution that has been accused of ignoring and condoning sexual violence, Smith hasn’t tried to deny that there is something wrong in the culture of the ADF. It’s obvious that there is something wrong in the culture of the ADF, and simply stating that your institution doesn’t tolerate sexual violence when it clearly does is dishonest and lazy. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Smith and the people around him, who have real power in determining the future of these institutions, will walk the walk.
Here’s hoping, because one thing is for damn sure: something is rotten in the Australian Defence Force.