A Royal Commission is the only answer for Defence

A Royal Commission is the only answer for Defence

Cathy Kezelman

The review into the Australian Defence Force has revealed an endemic culture of physical and sexual assault, including that of children as young as thirteen, and other forms of abuse dating back six decades.

Just one of the anonymous victims. Pic: Network 10
Nothing less than a Royal Commission will deliver the systemic change needed to reverse the damage reaped by the existing culture.

The report, by law firm DLA Piper, is based on 847 independent reports of abuse, involving men and women including allegations of crimes which had been committed against children. The special needs of children, based on their inherent vulnerability and the necessity of incorporating additional protections for children in the ADF, have historically been ignored. Many, according to the reports, were not kept safe and the long-term impacts, as potentially for all child victims of abuse, who have not received the right support, have been substantial.

Over recent years we have witnessed widespread revelations of abuse, often of a systemic nature within an array of institutions and organisations. Many of these institutions and organisations have sought to protect themselves and those who work in them rather than to prioritise accountability, justice, and victim support.

The ADF is a closed hierarchical system which by necessity has a well defined chain of command. Its very structure and internal culture of fear wielded by many of those in authority have, it would appear, conspired to prevent far too many from abusing that authority and power and from reporting incidents of abuse. As the report indicates, it is anticipated that perpetrators of abuse, never held to account would still be holding middle and senior management positions.

Perpetrators use secrecy and silence to hide their crimes and if secrecy fails they attack the credibility of their victims. Secrecy, silence and discrediting occur organisationally and institutionally as well. Blaming, silencing, punishing and re-victimising victims are, it seems, endemic practices within the ADF. A ‘group herd mentality’ has reportedly predominated, discouraging victims to report.

Abuse victims often adopt an inappropriate sense of shame and self blame. The use of shaming and humiliation by the identifying group further fuels the shame inherent to being abused. Similarly a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality evidenced by generational practices of bastardisation, and cycles of abuse have reportedly continued unabated.

We have watched as institutions have doggedly clung to internal processes, attempted to stay closed to scrutiny, and abrogated hierarchical and bystander responsibility. Within the ADF there has been little to no culture which supports the victim and encourages them to report the abuse perpetrated against them. Or which provides them with the empathy, validation, and therapeutic support victims need to start to process and make sense of their trauma.

Similarly there has been a failure to make those accountable for substantiated cases or to pursue responsible investigation of alleged incidents.

Violence and sexual violence are primarily gendered crimes. Within the ADF, women in particular, appear to have been discriminated against by virtue of their gender, with female victims fearing further victimisation on disclosure, and a macho male mentality predominating in a fundamentally male environment.

Alcohol and other substances are known to fuel abuse and assault. The closed environment within the ADF, in which individuals are removed from family friends and other communities, further contributes to a culture in which fewer factors mitigate the perpetuation of abusive practices. Abuse is an established social practice in all communities. In the community of the ADF, in which personnel are subject to stresses and trauma which are often compounded and exceptional, it would appear that these practices are more entrenched still.

Like other institutions in which abuse has burgeoned, the ADF has insisted on utilising internal processes or, when subjected to reviews, has failed to enact systemic change. In so doing the ADF and successive Australian governments have effectively abrogated their hierarchical responsibility.

It is time to see systemic cultural change with zero tolerance to abuse, sexual abuse, violence and physical assault within the ADF. It is time to engender a culture that is based on mutual respect, acceptance of diversity of gender, race and religion, rather than fear, ignorance, bullying and abuse.

There needs to be an open and transparent culture of reporting in which all allegations are taken seriously and victims’ needs are prioritised. In which crimes are reported to the appropriate external authorities, legal processes are pursued and compensation claims are honoured. Perpetrators must be brought to account and justice, and unless rehabilitated be removed from positions in which they can abuse their power.

It is time for an extensive internal education process which highlights the courage and needs of victims along with the impacts of compounded trauma on the individuals’ development and their physical, mental health and behaviours. And we need to see the provision of informed and sustained therapeutic support for all victims regardless of the length of time since the crimes were committed.

Nothing less than a Royal Commission will institute the systemic changes needed for the ADF to model the respectful non-abusive behaviours which optimise the health and wellbeing of all the men and women of our defence forces.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) is the leading Australian charity promoting the needs of the more than two million adult Australian survivors of childhood trauma.Call ASCA 1300 professional support line 1300 657 380 or visit the website