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Defence culture reform sees sexual misconduct milestone

Now two years into the Department of Defence’s five-year “Pathway to Change” cultural reform, officials have given the first indications of success at its newly established body to combat and respond to sexual harassment and misconduct.

The Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office — SeMPRO — was launched in July last year with the challenge of creating an agency from scratch, to fill in the gap between investigators, line managers, corporate leadership and established Defence culture into which victims of abuse and harassment were falling.

Defence’s director-general, cultural reviews response, Air Commodore Henrik Ehlers, says the early results, with more than 311 interactions so far, have been very positive. Ehlers told the Senate’s first hearing on the independent Defence Abuse Response Taskforce yesterday:

“They’ve been operating for just over a year now and I think they’re an unqualified success in these early days of their establishment. What we are seeing is people feeling confident to contact us. What we are seeing at SeMPRO is that many of the matters being referred to us are of historic nature — this is where victims of abuse are finally wanting to come forward, either share their story, or access support mechanisms.”

The surprise result of the early experience has been the large number of enquiries from commanders and managers seeking information and education in their role, he said:

“A key part of SeMPRO’s work is prevention and education. We been working with experts to develop, for the first time in our organisation, a sexual ethics education program. We’re looking to create sexual ethics education strategy, starting with our training institutions and what the sporting codes have done, but we’re dealing with a much wider demographic.”

This sexual ethics education strategy is being informed by experts, civilian academics and lawyers and includes plans to increase knowledge of sexual misconduct matters with ongoing education inside organisations by incorporating the lessons into professional training and promotion courses.

“To us the critical success factor in SeMPRO’s work is in improving education, improving people’s understanding of sexual ethics.”

Defence’s latest YourSay attitudinal survey of ADF members and the Department of Defence’s APS employees suggest a “very positive trend” that workers believe that the organisation will act on a complaint.

However, one of the challenges SeMPRO and Defence still face is the issue of restricted reporting, where victims may seek support without triggering an investigation or registering their identity in a Defence-wide system. Ehlers was not aware of any instance when a confidential report to SeMPRO had to be made unrestricted due to legal requirements, but the potential is there due to some state and territory laws, such as when a child is involved.

The Pathway to Change strategy plans for structural changes to continue for another year, and cultural shifts to become more visible from 2016 onwards.

A sample of SeMPRO advice to commanders and managers:

When supporting a Defence APS member through an incident of sexual misconduct:

  • Remember your employee is not to blame.
  • Believe them, listen and respond with compassion.
  • Offer support, such as the Employee Assistance Program.
  • Advise them that they may contact SeMPRO for support and guidance, should they wish to.

You may also have mandatory reporting requirements to the State/Territory police and/or Code of Conduct delegate.

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.