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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 327

Senator WEST (10.12 a.m.) —I am pleased to be able to be part of this report on sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I am not pleased, however, that the incident took place and that there was a need for the committee to have to look at this issue. It became very clear from the work of the committee that the incidence of sexual harassment and discrimination is not very well known within the ADF or within the general community. Sexual harassment and discrimination is alive and well out there in the general community. People who say that they belong to large organisation that do not have harassers in their employ and that there is no discrimination are having themselves on.

  The committee was very honoured to have appear before it several times both the previous and current chiefs of the naval staff. We thank them very much for their appearance. They made an excellent contribution and they also recognised the failings of their force. It takes substantial character to say, `The group that I lead has erred.' The chief of personnel for the whole of the Australian Defence Force also appeared before the committee. I found it a little upsetting that the chief of general staff and the chief of the air staff did not also appear before the committee. Whilst we know that they support the integration of women into their forces, they did not appear before us to provide that very positive and public commitment. Having been around ADF ranks and having spoken to people over a number of years, I know that those people also certainly share a very strong commitment to women in their forces. However, it would have been nice if they had been able to publicly demonstrate that.

  I also place on record the committee's thanks to the secretariat for all of the hard work that has gone into this very large report. It is just on 12 months since the committee received this reference and it has taken a lot of hard work to reach this stage.

  There are many recommendations of which the Senate has already been told. I hope they will all be acted upon, because we have looked very carefully at this issue. Sexual harassment is something that exists in all areas. It is a pity that it does. It is a form of sexual discrimination and must be recognised as such. One has to wonder at some people who say that they do not understand quite what is sexual harassment and what is not—as to what sorts of behaviour they would expect is appropriate for their spouses or their children, particularly their daughters, in their own homes. One wonders at the extreme edge what sort of dysfunctional families we may be dealing with there.

  A number of the members of the committee were also able to participate in a day at sea on HMAS Swan, which was very valuable because it enabled us to see first-hand what a seagoing vessel is like and the cramped conditions that both genders are required to live and work within—and also to find out how nasty seasickness is. When seasickness is added to the cramped, confined spaces and the pressure under which they work, it is not much fun.

  We were also able to participate in a half-day seminar run by the navy called `Good Working Relationships'. This is the navy's answer to assisting in overcoming this issue of sexual harassment. These are excellent programs that are run with a mixture of officers and other ranks and they explore very well the issue of sexual harassment and what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. That is a very positive initiative on behalf of the navy. I would urge the other two services to implement a similar program.

  This report highlighted the problems that were experienced by Dr Wheat because she was a direct entry into the navy, which means that she came in not quite off the street but with a minimal amount of training and was sent to sea. People coming in with direct entry are very positive in that they provide a fresh input into the services. However, they have missed out on a whole learning process about the culture of the organisation and also how a more junior person is able to say to someone of greater seniority, `Excuse me, that's inappropriate behaviour' or `I don't like it.' Most people I have met within the armed forces are able to say that quite well.

  However, there comes a time when the person is in such a senior position or is of such a personality that one cannot say, `Excuse me, that behaviour is not acceptable to me.' The ones that I have the most concerns about within the armed forces are the more junior people. We are taking people into our armed forces at age 18 and placing them in a very hierarchical situation. We are expecting people not to discriminate against them and not to harass them. However, with 70,000 employees there must be the odd person who is going to do that.

  It is very important that the armed forces have already done something about this problem, with the appointment of sexual harassment officers and equal opportunity officers. But it is very important that the name of the contact person becomes very well known to those people, almost as well known as where and how they place their gear when they are packing up or doing other daily procedures, so that they know that they have some redress and some recourse.

  This is not to demean the chain of command or mean that they should step outside the chain of command unnecessarily, but it does mean that, if somewhere in that chain of command a person is being harassed and discriminated against, that person can actually sidestep that issue and overcome the problem. Certainly, the senior officers do not want to see that happen and, I am sure, would not feel that the chain of command is being broken inappropriately when that type of thing happens.

  It is very important that we provide these resources for those very junior people, the 17- and 18-year-olds, that we are sending out into the armed forces to defend this country, and that we provide them with the support so that they are not harassed and discriminated against. There is no way that an 18-year-old person who has done only the elementary training is able to say to someone with the rank of petty officer, chief petty officer or warrant officer, `Excuse me, but I don't like that. Don't do it.' Those people must be concerned that it will have ramifications for their careers. Likewise, I do not know how anyone can say to a general, an admiral or an air marshal, `Excuse me, sir, but I don't find that behaviour terribly appropriate either. Would you please not do it in my presence.' Those people are in very senior positions and it is very much the power issue.

  I know that the ADF is attempting to address the matter and I wish it well in doing so. It has also set up 008 numbers so that people are able to call to seek advice as to what assistance they can obtain. Each of the three services has its own 008 number. I have some reservations as to whether this is the best utilisation of resources—whether one 008 number across the three services would be a better use of resources. It would stop duplication and enable them to extend the number of hours for which the 008 number was available. They would also be able to have people with greater expertise staffing those phones.

  We see that women are joining the ADF in quite significant numbers. On the second last and last pages of the report there are some comparative figures on male and female junior and senior officers. We know that women have not yet reached star rank—the admiral, general and air vice marshal ranks. There is one female navy captain. The latest figures I have show that there are two female army colonels and no female air force group captains. So they all have a long way to go in answering women's needs for promotion and to remove what would appear to be some discrimination there.

  Opening up more places for women to be able to compete in the armed forces will enable women to have a wider range of experience and therefore make them more competitive for promotion. A separation of officers has also taken place. I suggest that people look at the separation of other ranks, too, to see where the women are getting out.

  With women coming into the armed forces, we have seen women in ADFA in the last four or five years winning prizes for being dux and coming first in areas in greater proportions than their numbers in the course. This is going to promote some competition for the gentlemen once these women are actually serving. What will happen is that no more senior positions will be available across the armed forces, but more people will be competing for those positions. That will be very good for Australia's defence forces because we will have the best brains available. (Time expired)