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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 322

Senator JONES —I present the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force, together with submissions, the transcript of evidence, and related documents.

  Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator JONES —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

On 29 September 1993 the Senate set the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade the task of inquiring into sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force. As part of that task the committee was to inquire into allegations about certain events on the destroyer escort HMAS Swan, how these events were handled and the way the navy as a whole responded to the challenge of fully integrating women into the services. The terms of reference further required the committee to inquire also into sexual harassment in the other armed services.

  The initial expectation was that the committee would present its report in early 1994. This did not prove possible for several reasons. While on the face of it sexual harassment appears to be a straightforward matter, the complexity of the issues raised quickly became evident as evidence was put before the committee. Paradoxically, the committee had both an overload and a lack of evidence. The committee had available to it an enormous amount of detailed documentation associated with the Swan allegations. This included full transcripts of all the preceding interviews and inquiries, extensive internal navy documentation concerning the handling of all these matters, as well as submissions from many of the individuals affected.

  The shortfall in evidence became evident when the committee sought to inform itself about the wider incidence of sexual harassment within the navy, the ADF and society as a whole. Various studies and surveys have been conducted. Regrettably, very little in the way of reliable statistics or hard data is available. What little is available is often distorted in the media, with some dramatic claims getting more attention, with little regard for the complexity of the issues involved.

  The concept of sexual harassment appears simple, but it is not simple. A very wide spectrum of behaviours can come under the term `sexual harassment'. They range from the most brutal physical assault to mildly offensive sexist banter. An important aspect of the term `sexual harassment' under the Sex Discrimination Act is the prominence that is given to the subjective response of the person claiming sexual harassment.

  It is very difficult to reach any definitive conclusions about the incidence of sexual harassment in the ADF. As in the community more generally, sexual harassment is a problem, and it is a problem that has not in the past been adequately acknowledged. There is no solid evidence to indicate that the extent of the problem is any worse in the services than in the community at large. The statistics are simply inadequate.

  One academic expert said that the ADF compared favourably with other areas where women have entered previously male-dominated workplaces. Others argued that it was more difficult to register a complaint in the armed forces than elsewhere. Better monitoring is clearly necessary. The present very broad definition complicates to a considerable extent the whole question of dealing with sexual harassment.

  In the committee's view, it is important that sexual harassment of different kinds and of different severity be dealt with in different ways. Abuse, such as sexual assault and demands for sexual favours and threats if such favours are not granted, requires a different approach from the approach necessary to deal with more general hostility towards women serving as equals in the defence forces.

  By not distinguishing more clearly between the different kinds of sexual harassment and by leaving the boundaries of what constitutes sexual harassment unclear, the Sex Discrimination Act as it now stands creates confusion and uncertainty, generates apprehension and has dysfunctional consequences. In the case of the navy, for example, evidence to the committee indicates that the present situation can interfere with team spirit and can work against the full acceptance of women as equal partners on the job. Education of personnel can help alleviate the problems but not eliminate them.

  The committee has therefore recommended that the definition of sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act should be refined to indicate that some forms are more serious than others. The committee also recommends that the act should indicate more clearly that the more serious forms of sexual harassment are dealt with more severely than others.

  The committee accepts that this is the approach that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in all probability adopts in the mediation and conciliation of cases that come before her. The difficulty is that the community, and that includes members of the Defence Force, knows very little about the way in which most sexual harassment cases are dealt with. It is this widespread lack of knowledge that leads to misperceptions, unnecessary apprehension and resentment.

  The third element of recommendation one is that the complainant should, where possible, inform the alleged harasser that his or her behaviour is offensive. This is closely related to the committee's second recommendation. This would require the employer to assist the person who feels he or she is being sexually harassed to let the alleged harasser know the effect of that behaviour. Together, the recommendations are aimed at greater clarity for all concerned about what constitutes sexual harassment. Just as importantly, they are aimed at bringing to light problems before they escalate into major disputes, with severe damage to all parties. It is aimed at resolving issues well before they turn into legal battles for compensation or, should I say, newspaper headlines.

  Several of the committee's other recommendations are aimed at ensuring that the Defence Force has in place better mechanisms for resolving potential sexual harassment cases before they escalate and seriously damage the individuals involved. The personal experiences of sexual harassment of women in the navy who gave evidence to the committee varied. The women also varied in their capacity to deal with such harassment.

  The committee is of the view that there is a pressing need to increase the skills of all personnel to deal with sexual harassment, whether as a supervisor or as a person directly affected. It is particularly important to assist personnel to deal with less serious kinds of sexual harassment at the personal level before the situation escalates and gets out of hand. Once sexual harassment reaches a point where a formal complaint is seen as the only option, the chances are that all the parties involved will end up being hurt or damaged.

  The committee concluded that the main management tool for dealing with personnel issues in the navy, the divisional system, is not an adequate mechanism for the management of sexual harassment, or indeed harassment of any kind. There must be avenues other than the normal chain of command for individuals to turn to if they encounter sexual harassment. This is particularly important if the harasser is higher in the hierarchy and especially if he or she holds one of the positions in that individual's chain of command.

  The committee believes that the 008 telephone service Operation Lifeguard is a vital ingredient in the effective management of sexual harassment in the navy and believes the service should be further enhanced.

  The committee has concluded that the navy today is making a very real, concerted effort to make the adjustments that are necessary. The committee firmly endorses the approach that the navy has now adopted in its good working relationship program, an approach which recognises the need to work on improving the nature of work relationships and management practices across the board.

  While there is room to improve some of the activities that the navy has undertaken, and recommendations to this end are included in the body of the committee's report, the main thrust is in the right direction and the necessary commitment at the highest levels of the current leadership is evident. The committee is not satisfied that the same can be said for the other two services. The committee believes that the action plan put forward by Headquarters ADF must be implemented more quickly and must be seen to have the wholehearted support of the leadership of each of the services.

  The committee considers that several aspects of the ADF action plan need to be strengthened. Recommendation 39 spells out in considerable detail the measures the committee considers to be essential ingredients for the successful management of sexual harassment in the Defence Force. It is not an easy matter to disentangle the rights and wrongs of the action or inaction of each and every person involved in the Swan incidents in 1992. Over time, the perceptions of those directly involved have in all probability changed and evolved. The glare of publicity has played its part in the way people have come to see the events themselves.

  Both the navy's board of inquiry and this committee's inquiry are a direct result of the complaints Dr Wheat made in her letter of 25 November to the then Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel and the subsequent publicity that was given to her case when the board's report was leaked to the media.

  It is the committee's view that in Dr Wheat's case there was a particularly unfortunate coincidence of a great many factors contributing to the situation and to the way she felt on the Swan. A change in any one of these factors might have prevented the situation from developing as it did. The committee does not accept that there is a sound basis for many of the specific complaints made by Dr Wheat. The board of inquiry set up by the navy to investigate those complaints did however identify a number of problems relating to her service on the Swan and brought to light difficulties experienced by the junior female sailors on the Swan.

  The board's inquiry focused the attention of the navy's leadership on serious shortcomings in navy's corporate approach to the integration of women into the navy. It brought home to the navy's leadership the realisation that they had misjudged the nature and extent of the educational process that all members of the navy had to undergo to deal with the major change that the full integration of women into the navy represented.

  The committee examined closely the actions that the navy leadership took following the board's inquiry. To its credit, the navy took a series of very important steps, culminating in the endorsement and implementation of the good working relationships program. The program clearly has had the full backing and active involvement of the Chief of Naval Staff. The continuing commitment of the leadership to the program is essential if the navy is to meet the challenges that the integration of women into the services present.

  It is the committee's view, however, that in its determination to make up for its failure to anticipate fully the measures and effort needed to ensure the smooth integration of women into the navy, the navy leadership erred in the severity of the disciplinary action it took against individuals involved in the Swan incidents. The consideration uppermost in the navy leadership's mind appears to have been to send a strong signal that the kind of behaviour that had occurred on the Swan would not be tolerated. The method chosen was the most severe administrative measure available, censure by the Chief of Naval Staff. The decision to send a signal by this means ignored the extent to which adequate steps to prepare all personnel—from able seaman to captain of the ship—had not been taken. A strong signal was needed, but a more appropriate and timely way of making clear to all that sexual harassment would not be permitted should have been used.

  The evidence presented to the committee during this inquiry also made it clear that many of the difficulties that Dr Wheat encountered on the Swan were by no means unique to the Swan, nor even confined to female personnel. The navy picked out the command and personnel of one ship for punishment for not dealing more adequately with behaviours that, in one form or another, have put many navy personnel under stress. This is seen by the committee as neither equitable nor effective in bringing about change for the better in the long term.

  The committee concluded that the emotional price paid by all those directly affected by the events on HMAS Swan goes beyond any distress at the time of the particular events themselves. Continuing scrutiny, first by a court martial, then the board of inquiry, the media and finally the Senate committee proceedings have exposed the people affected to much greater stress than would normally be expected for the resolution of incidents of the kind that triggered the present inquiry.

  The responsibility for allowing a situation to develop that permitted the incidents to take place must be widely shared. All the parties present when the events took place carry some responsibility, as do a wide range of officers at various levels and in several different management levels of the Royal Australian Navy. Punishment for past shortcomings should not be the focus of activity today.

  The committee firmly endorses the principle of equal opportunity for women in the Australian Defence Force. It is the committee's view that the primary emphasis at this stage of evolution in the integration of women in the Australian Defence Force must be on educating all personnel, raising awareness about gender related problems and providing effective tools for managing those problems.

  I commend the recommendations of the report as a constructive contribution to the successful integration of women in the armed services of Australia. I also thank the secretariat for their work and dedication during the course of this inquiry.