Navy breaks surface, at last

It’s possible to date the time the navy reached its lowest point to the very second. Admiral Chris Barrie was holding a news conference after the “Children Overboard” scandal – and the audience was hostile. Quite understandably, journalists (just like the rest of the country) couldn’t believe what had occurred. It had been obvious during the inquiry that things had been different when RAAF Chief Angus Houston was acting in the top job. It looked as if the RAN was trapped in a systemic problem.

Nine’s Laurie Oakes voice cut through the throng of questioning voices. “Admiral”, he asked, “are you a dill?”

Barrie didn’t reply: he couldn’t. He simply walked off the stage instead, and that moment displayed how far the navy had fallen. It could no longer be regarded as a serious organisation – it had become the joke of the defence force, incapable of even understanding and reporting what was going on before its eyes without guidance from above.

Beset by other scandals (such as the deaths of young sailors because of faulty equipment on HMAS Westralia and questions over the operational capacity of its weapons and helicopters) and soon beleaguered by further revelations (problems in the submarine force and with personnel), the service looked like a hopeless basket-case.

But watching the former chief beat his retreat to the equivalent of journalistic cat-calls undoubtedly marked the navy’s nadir. It had become a pariah. The organisation’s practices and procedures were outside those of mainstream Australian society.


It’s been a long road back and – as the recent sackings accompanying the revelations RAN ships had wandered into Indonesian waters demonstrate – it’s not out in the clear yet. And it would be incorrect to allocate full responsibility for the remarkable culture change that the service has gone through since 2001 to the current chief, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs. But what would be a mistake is to minimise the extent of the journey the navy has travelled – operationally and, perhaps far more importantly, culturally as well.

Now there’s a degree to all this in which Griggs just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. The preconditions for the transit had been laid down by many people who were subsequently bypassed and by others who just continued doing the right thing, as they always had.

But that’s not the way we tell stories to one another. It’s not just journalists that fix upon individuals and allocate to them responsibility for deeper social changes: it’s something we all do, because it’s the way we make sense of our world.

But when he was defence minister Stephen Smith was most unhappy with the so-called “senior service”. He determined to dig down to find an officer who he believed would usher in the changes he felt were urgently required, and that’s why Griggs missed the chance (that he probably wanted most of all) to command the fleet at sea and was instead given a desk at Russell Hill to be his bridge. So let’s use the case of Griggs to explain what’s happened to the navy, what has worked, and what is yet to be accomplished.

Fortunately, this week Griggs gave an account of his stewardship of the navy to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. His new appointment will be as Deputy Chief of the Defence Force but what was interesting about his speech is that he barely mentioned any of the usual tropes about “intense conduct of operations” or “challenging conditions”.

A vital ingredient of Griggs’ success has been his decision to accept the overall environment in which the navy has been operating. He hasn’t tried to find excuses and, critically, he has brought the service along with him. Instead of trying to insist that simply because his people wear white uniforms they should be allowed to do things differently, the RAN has been brought back into the social mainstream. This has happened with accountability and integration.

Griggs’ list is too long to go through in detail but what’s significant are the issues he has focused on, because these are often not the sorts of things normally associated with the forces. Such as the introduction of Islamic head-dress and becoming the largest organisation in the country to become accredited as a White Ribbon workplace (aware of violence against women). Engaging with outdated practices and not ignoring the past. Calling people to account.

The bad days and practices aren’t all over. Just last week eight sailors were arraigned when a “birthday celebration” on a frigate got out of hand. Some people still don’t understand, apparently, that it’s not normal to strip naked and shove whiteboard markers up parts of the anatomy until blood flows.

Griggs probably won’t be happy that I’ve focused exclusively on the social structures of his organisation. He thinks the good story is all about operational capability, the introduction of new equipment and his continuing drive to get simplification and commonality across highly effective platforms.

I disagree. What makes an organisation work effectively are the intangibles that reside below the surface. Getting these into gear is the work of more than one person. What’s different today is that everyone’s actually pulling the same way.