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David Morrison: ‘peel away the complacent stories’

Some military officers can only lead by brute dictate, others are limited to the friendly figure gently encouraging cooperation. David Morrison marches the entire spectrum and gets results.

Defence service chiefs only have a few years to make an impact and by early 2013 it was clear to the then-chief of Army what he needed to accomplish. As custodian of public trust, he needed to future-proof the Army workforce, make his organisation a viable and attractive career for the most talented young Australians, but it wasn’t — not for women, not for minority groups.

Morrison implemented targets for recruitment of women. It was controversial in the ranks, and took oxygen away from concurrent efforts to support an inclusive culture.

Looking back now, Morrison says the most effect approach was critically examining the way Army promoted itself.

[pullquote] “Actions speak louder than words. If you don’t have a target, what are you aiming at?” [/pullquote]

“By asking ourselves were the stories we were telling about ourselves relevant to modern day Australia,” Morrison told The Mandarin. “We needed to modernise the image that Army was telling of itself.”

The ANZAC legacy and particularly how it is imagined has a very real day-to-day impact for the Australian Defence Force. It impacts a range of cultural practices that are often unconscious. Including how it judges merit.

Morrison says the impact is often gendered, but once they could see the problem of bias, a few tweaks could also make Army a better employer for men too.

“We’re a hierarchical male-dominated institution,” he said. “You can only get to point D if you’ve gone through point C, B and A. That doesn’t work for a lot of people, doesn’t work for women obviously, but it also doesn’t work for men who want to take time out of the workforce to go do something else.”

He instituted a commitment to workforce, a commitment that has been continued by his successor. If an employee is identified as the “talent of the future” Army will guarantee after their period of absence, they can return and won’t lose one day of seniority. It was a world first, and as a consequence women returning from maternity leave is now at an all-time high for Army.

Targets also worked, but were a harder sell both inside the government and to public. When these efforts started women made up 9% of the Army workforce; and by the time Morrison left, the number of Army cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy were 25%. Although bruising, Morrison is proud of the example he set.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “If you don’t have a target, what are you aiming at?”

‘Natural’ next job

Capability, not altruism, not the fair go, was the motive and the winning argument — particularly at the start. Morrison needed to convince the very conservative Defence community that he wasn’t about to sabotage the fighting strength of the Australian Army.

For years, it seemed Morrison could only make one point, over and over until it sunk in: “A diverse workforce is a more capable workforce.”

“If we’ve got different thinking, if we’ve got talent from men and women that haven’t traditionally joined our Army, how can we not be a better organisation? And if we’re attracting them we better retain them. And to retain them, we ought to give them every chance we can to reach their potential,” he said.

[pullquote] “… because it’s a world that’s been largely created by men the rules have been written by men for the benefit of men.” [/pullquote]

The universality of that logic and Morrison’s seemingly effortless effectiveness at spreading that message to government and corporate leaders, meant he found it a natural step to continue the work after leaving Army. We need to make the most of the talent that we’re got access to, he says, and that applies to all Australia, not just Army.

He joined the Diversity Council of Australia as its new chair. Because once his eyes were opened to the thwarted potential, he wasn’t going to be a bystander any longer.

Morrison isn’t immune to the irony of him taking the role: “I did say to them, do you really want a 59-year-old Anglo-Saxon man to be the chair? I felt a real privilege.”

After he was named Australian of the Year for 2016 on Monday night, others have asked if he is the best representative for a diversity champion. But Morrison says the conversations must include people who look like him.

“Without being confrontational, it’s on senior men having these public conversations because it’s a world that’s been largely created by men the rules have been written by men for the benefit of men,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re doing a very good job when we start to peel away some of the complacent stories we tell about ourselves.”

Those stories that Australians like to tell about ourselves, about mateship and giving people a fair go, are hollow, Morrison says. Capability is still part of his message, but with his new platform he can also ask why Australia isn’t living up to the image we’d like to see for ourselves.

“If it’s about [a fair go], how do we explain the almost 19% pay gap between men and women in this country across all employment sectors,” he said. How do we explain the one-in-two women who report discrimination from their employer when they announce they’re pregnant? When we look at the low take up rate, from men and women from an Asian heritage or an indigenous heritage, how do we explain that?”

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.