The Public Sector Informant

A diverse Defence Force isn't 'soft' - it's ready for its broader, modern role

The military has moved well beyond killing and capturing: it needs recruits who see the big picture.

Miranda Devine, in a provocative column in The Daily Telegraph, says "the 'diversity' revolution that Lieutenant-General David Morrison inflicted on the Australian Army now threatens to diminish our war-fighting capability".

I don't know the details of the programs the Australian Defence Force is now running (post-Morrison) to promote diversity, but Devine's references to troops being unimpressed and seeing the programs as "messing with our war-fighting DNA" sound sadly familiar.

Just over 10 years ago, I chaired an inquiry for the then chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshall Angus Houston, into the culture of the ADF's education and training establishments. Unlike many other inquiries into the ADF over the years, this one was commissioned by the chief himself. The other inquiry team members were Major-General Roger Powell, a former tank commander, and Catherine Harris, a former sex discrimination commissioner.

The inquiry followed a series of well-publicised incidents of bullying and harassment, suggesting a culture in several training establishments (including the Australian Defence Force Academy and Royal Military College, Duntroon) that Houston was determined to stamp out, with the strong support of his service chiefs. Houston asked us to independently assess his success in changing the culture.

Uppermost in our minds was whether the culture needed for war-fighting success conflicted with community concerns for diversity and demands for action to counter bullying and harassment. The third paragraph of the executive summary of our report read:


"Importantly, the inquiry team was concerned to ensure its view of an appropriate culture is consistent with the considered view of CDF on the optimal culture for successful military operations, and on the optimal learning culture to develop skills, capabilities and values necessary for future operational success. We were determined to ensure our assessment, and our recommendations for avoiding a culture of harassment and bullying, reinforced rather than detracted from the standards required by the ADF for operational success."

When describing the key elements of an optimal learning culture for ADF schools and training establishments, we included "training for lethal force and compassion for community". This reflected a critical point Houston and the chiefs had highlighted to us: that today's military needs not only skills to "kill and capture" but also skills to "care and nurture", and to help build community capacity in conflict zones and countries.

In particular, the army was keen to develop "thinking soldiers" able to exercise discretion within the orders from superiors, to take into account the context they were operating within, and to appreciate objectives such as community building as well as battlefield success. Exercising such discretion appropriately requires the soldiers not only to respect diversity but to appreciate different cultures. It is also highly relevant that much of the ADF's operational capability lies outside the battlefield, including intelligence, remote weapon controls and logistical support.

We also acknowledged the fine line between "toughness" and bullying. There are areas of risk associated with building the cohesion required for comradeship and willingness to commit all for each other, particularly for those who cannot be socialised or who fail to conform. The risk of "groupthink" is real, as is the risk that pressure to conform drives out diversity.

Managing these risks, however, must not involve accepting bullying and harassment, or avoiding diversity, but more respectfully treating those who find it difficult or fail to conform, and investing more in team-building among more diverse individuals and rehabilitating those who initially fail (for example, through injury). The latter investments were already becoming more important because of the challenge facing the ADF of recruiting from a diminishing pool of young workers in an increasingly competitive labour market. This added to the need to look to wider diversity (particularly to include more women) and to reduce waste during training.

Today's military needs not only skills to 'kill and capture' but also skills to 'care and nurture'.

In our assessment, we said we were impressed by what we saw of the ADF's effort to improve the learning culture and its emphasis on a values-based culture across its training and education establishments. However, we said "there is some way to go ... to gain the strong support of the non-commissioned officers, warrant officers and junior officers", recognising the importance these ranks play in setting examples for their cadets and other ranks. We found "evidence of strong feelings of frustration amongst trainers, not fully in support of the explicit policies from the chain of command".

This led to a key theme in our report of further investment in the quality of the trainers, particularly those at these NCO, WO and junior officer levels. We concluded they needed to see diversity and non-discrimination as essential attributes of a winning Defence Force and the modern profession of arms, rather than as "softening" training or lowering standards. We recognised their genuine commitment to the reform agenda was essential.

Devine's piece could show that the frustration we found 10 years ago continues in some parts of the ADF today. Perhaps the ADF's current approach to diversity is too doctrinaire and insufficiently integrated with its training and ongoing support for the modern profession of arms; perhaps there is insufficient explanation of what is needed for operational success today. Perhaps the delivery of the diversity programs is poor.

But reinforcing the attitudes of those (mainly Anglo-Saxon men) who want to retain a narrow "war-fighting DNA" spells dangers for both overall capability in the ADF and for community support, as it would once again raise the risks of bullying, harassment and discrimination that the Australian community will not, and should not, accept.

Andrew Podger is a professor of public policy at the ANU's College of Arts and Social Sciences, a former federal departmental secretary and a former public service commissioner.