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Defence Force abuse report: let the good work continue

So numerous and serious were the credible complaints to the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce that the long-awaited final report released today has called for a royal commission into cases at the training institution ADFA, and for complaint investigations and victim follow-up to continue after the terms of the chair and leadership group expire this month.

More than 2400 people, men and women, uniformed and civilian APS, came forward with complaints of abuse, often sexual, degrading and relentless, while working for Defence.

Taskforce chair Len Roberts-Smith QC said it was clear that unique cultures of abuse “thrived” in each uniformed service and were passed down between generations or learned by people who suffered abuse themselves:

“It is impossible to read or listen to the personal accounts that have been included in this report without being affected. On behalf of the Taskforce, I would like to thank all those who have come forward to the Taskforce. Each person who has broken their silence about the abuse they suffered has made an important contribution to Defence’s ongoing efforts to achieve cultural change.”

He recommended the more than 800 outstanding cases requiring mediation and 500 cases considered for further disciplinary action should be transferred to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, along with the existing staff. The taskforce feared no other office holder could have sufficient authority and independence from Defence to remain credible for victims.

Roberts-Smith estimates the workload ahead will last until mid-2016, urging the federal government to continue funding the operation, even has he steps down with today’s report. He recommended his successor be Commonwealth ombudsman Colin Neave, who also holds the title Defence Force ombudsman but remains functionally independent from the department, the ADF and the minister.

The cut-off for reporting abuse to this taskforce was May 31, 2013. Roberts-Smith recommended further processes be put in place to enable additional reporting by those who have not already done so. He said his experience on the taskforce “indicates that those who have experienced abuse may take many years to reach a point where they can talk about the abuse they suffered”.

Many complainants who did disclose their abuse were explicitly told by a superior officer or colleague that their experiences were part of the “toughening up” expected of uniformed personnel.

No such excuses were offered to the 42 complainants who were civilian public service employees. The experiences they reported were mostly recent — from 2000 onwards — and also involved physical and sexual assault (non-consensual vaginal penetration) at work-related events where alcohol was a factor.

In almost all cases, uniformed or APS, the accused was in a position of seniority over the complainant.

The department and ADF chiefs have over the last three years enacted several initiatives to ensure the well-spring of undisclosed abuse discovered by the taskforce is not repeated. The Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office, known in Defence-speak as SeMPRO, was opened to serve as a neutral avenue for Defence employees, contractors and families to raise abuse outside the chain of command. Ethics education will also be introduced in the initial entry training institutions and promotion courses.

Roberts-Smith said the taskforce process, while painful, was invaluable and innovative:

“The work of the taskforce reflected a novel and innovative approach by the government to a complex problem which was largely unresolvable by existing approaches and processes … It has made a real, practical difference to the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who suffered abuse in Defence and it has made — and will continue to make — a significant contribution to cultural change in Defence.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.