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Skype scandal attacks serve only to weaken our defence

Date

Michael O'Keefe

Time for military chiefs to let controversy rest and focus on protecting the nation.

Defence minister Stephen Smith.

Defence minister Stephen Smith. Photo: Andrew Meares

Thousands of words have been written on the Australian defence academy's Skype affair and the subsequent Kirkham report, which has yet to be publicly released. Why so much interest? The answer seems to depend on whether you believe that Defence needs a new minister, and now.

In this debate there seems to be no middle ground and this is itself telling. It speaks to the privileged place that Defence holds in our polity and its unique culture. Where else in the federal bureaucracy do we see ministers pressured by their department to the point where their position could become untenable?

Some background is warranted. Last week Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence, released a raft of reports focused on allegations of sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force. One report concentrated on the Skype incident, in which a cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) had consensual sex with a peer, which was filmed without her consent and Skyped to other cadets. By coincidence, the cadet - known only as ''Kate'' - was facing disciplinary action on an unrelated matter . The Defence Minister expressed surprise that she was subject to disciplinary action while the Skype incident was splashed across the papers. The commandant of the ADFA, Bruce Kafer, was stood down pending an investigation into his behaviour and this is the substance of the Kirkham report. Almost a year on, Kafer has been exonerated of any wrongdoing and has been reinstated as commandant of the ADFA. This could be the end of the story, but the issue won't rest.

A concerted campaign is being waged against the minister. His handling of the Skype incident, and specifically of Kafer, appears to have offended elements of the defence establishment and is driving speculation his days are numbered.

Why should the minister's job be on the line? From what's on the public record, we know the Kirkham report did not find Kafer had a case to answer but equally the minister was not censured for pushing for Kafer's suspension from duty. Excerpts from the Kirkham report have been leaked to the media. The following is quoted in full so that there can be no debate about interpretation: ''The inquiry finds that [Commander] Kafer's direction which resulted in the service of the DFDA charges on [Kate] at a time when she was in DHC for medical treatment and had recently learnt of the Skype incident was unnecessary and had the effect of causing her some upset.

''It was open at all material times for [Commander] Kafer and [Colonel] Petersen to make inquiries of [Kate] (concerning whether she wished to commence and continue such proceedings). They failed to do so. The inquiry finds this failure unfortunate … such inquiries would have been a sensible and appropriate course of action.'' Commander Kafer has been exonerated, but the minister's unease about the handling of the incident appears to have had some merit.

This is even more reason why the issue should have rested. The fact it hasn't gone away speaks volumes for the politicisation of defence.

So does the fact that excerpts of the unreleased report that paint the minister in a positive light have found their way into the hands of journalists. It may be naive to expect Defence to focus on defence but this affair is a distraction from the core business of protecting Australia's national interests. The Skype incident cannot be viewed in isolation. It is no coincidence that it is occurring on the back of Labor's ministerial reshuffle. Smith stepped aside from the Foreign Ministry to facilitate Kevin Rudd's resignation as prime minister.

The obvious expectation was that Rudd's demotion to the backbenches opened space for Smith to move back into this coveted role. After some unfortunate to-ing and fro-ing, the Prime Minister stamped her authority on the process and Bob Carr was brought into cabinet.

Smith obviously thought he deserved the job and publicly stated his claim. This raised the ire of elements in the defence establishment and brought to a head tensions that have been brewing for the past few years. Loyalty is a key attribute of defence culture and much of the recent commentary points to Smith's attempt to shift to Foreign Affairs and his failure to support and defend Defence.

In this manner the martial attributes of successful defence leaders can sit uneasily with a minister bent of ''reforming'' Defence and forcing change on a conservative institution. Few defence ministers have commanded the loyalty and respect of the defence establishment they have managed. Those who have represented defence have fared much better. As such, the Skype incident questions the lines of authority in defence and expectations of ministerial responsibility. Either way, a multibillion-dollar ministry charged with protecting and furthering Australia's national interests deserves better than to air its dirty laundry in public. Let the Skype incident rest.

Michael O'Keefe is a senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University.

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