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Battling sexism head on

Chief of Army David Morrison’s vocal opposition to misogyny and harassment led to an entrenched campaign that changed the army, and his life, writes Peter Wilmoth.

After 36 years in the Australian Army, and four years as its chief, David Morrison has recently retired. He was 59 in May and felt it was time.

"No one loves the army more than me," he says. "I go with a sense of real pride in the people that I had the opportunity to serve with, and real optimism about the health and the future capabilities inside the army."

At retirement he looked forward to the chance to do more cooking, playing golf, travelling with his wife, reading (he reads a lot of feminist literature, saying he was "enormously impressed" by Catherine Fox's 7 myths about women and work) and listening to his beloved Joni Mitchell: "I love female musicians. I grew up heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell, who I still love. She's just sensational."

Morrison left his position as a hero, and not in the traditional military sense, but acknowledged in Australia and abroad for his work in calling out disgraceful behaviour among a small group of male soldiers over the past four years.

Taking a public stand

It started with his response to revelations in June 2013 of "explicit, derogatory, demeaning and repugnant" images widely disseminated by a group of male soldiers calling themselves the "Jedi Council". Infuriated, Morrison uploaded onto YouTube a searing video calling on those unwilling to uphold decent values to "get out" of the armed forces.

The video, intended for army only, went viral, and it triggered a long, at times painful and ultimately life-changing chapter in Morrison's working life – his attempts to change a culture. "On the night before I made that video I was in Sydney briefing all of army's senior command team about what had been discovered and what my public response was going to be," he says.

"I flew back (with a senior soldier, warrant officer Dave Ashley). I was sitting in the plane and I don't think I'd ever felt so low. We'd been doing all of these things to try and correct behaviour, try to give women better opportunities to reach their potential, attract more women into our workforce and I knew that I would be delivering a most unedifying account of behaviour of army personnel.

"(Dave Ashley) said: 'Sir, I can only say one thing, I can see how badly you are affected by this but we can't let the actions of this group of men define who we are. What we have to assure is that we are defined by our response.' And everything changed after that.

"It was a very powerful thing to say to a leader of an organisation who knew that he was in for a pretty rough time, and appropriately. One of the best things, maybe the only good thing, that came out of that awful episode was that people looked at the army in a way that they hadn't before."

How does he reflect on the video? "I see it with a degree of amazement that it has had the impact that it had," he says. "Essentially, it is just someone – in this case a man, obviously – telling his workforce that treating your colleagues with respect is a pre-condition of your employment and there is nothing startling in that … this went to the heart of what we want the army to be."

He saw a huge effect in the community. "They could see it was not just the leader … they could see very soon after that there was an enormous buy-in from the 45,000 men and women who comprise our army who are the most outstanding of Australians. They could see that their response to this was one of shock and anger and then real determination to try and correct it. It's a pretty bloody good thing, isn't it?

"I think there is plenty of veracity to the adage that you should never waste a crisis, and so we didn't."

Changing military culture

The 2013 incident followed the 2011 "Skype scandal" in which two men at the Australian Defence Force Academy were convicted after a woman was filmed having sex and the video broadcast via Skype to another room.

I asked Morrison about the poor culture in the defence forces. "Military service only appeals to a certain number of people," he says. "You have a military culture that tells stories about itself to itself and emphasises masculinity, overt masculine bravery, male characteristics. It becomes, without too much thought, quite an exclusive institution.

"But that doesn't work. You can't have in a multicultural society like Australia a force that is charged under the constitution to protect it to be something other than a reflection of society."

He says there were systemic faults within the culture that the army "should perhaps have twigged to earlier". "I suspect that we will never be able now to set this issue aside and say 'culture can look after itself'."

He is gratified that after his response to the 2013 scandal, more women applied to join the army. "In 2011 we were below 10 per cent (women). We're now at 12 per cent. That's an additional 650 women who have joined our army in the last two years."

Acting on pain and anguish

His efforts to stamp out disgraceful behaviour and the attitudes that caused it have changed him too. He plans to work in "the diversity area and specifically around gender" and is in conversation with "a couple of institutions in corporate Australia".

"I came to that very late in life as a consequence of what's occurred during my time as chief," he says. "It has given me a level of insight into some of the barriers that are placed in front of women achieving their potential that I have been involved in removing.

"So while I don't have any formal training in this area I do think I have experiences that would be of benefit to others… I think we've got a long way to go in this country and around the world in having better diversity in a range of areas, particularly in gender."

He was deeply moved by meeting three women who, as serving personnel, had been victims of sexual assault – a meeting facilitated by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick who conducted a review of the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force.

"(Liz) got me thinking in a way I had not thought of before," he says. "She asked me questions I didn't have answers for. She sensed my commitment here was genuine. So in 2012 she rang me and said 'I've met three army women who want to tell you their story'.

"Over the course of six hours three women told me the stories that had changed their lives but not for good, that had led them to question their own capacity to serve in our military… I had not experienced the level of pain and anguish before. I'd seen people hurt and I'd tried to deal with it but not like this. I've described it as the most distressing day of my military career.

"I felt that I should do something about it and I think I have, but I've got a long way to go.” He adds that his successor, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, has a long way to go as well.

Sharing with the world

Morrison says of the more than 100 people involved in the 2013 email scandal, every one had been held to account. "Some have had their service terminated. Some have been censored to the point where career advancement will not happen. Others have been formally warned… others have been formally counselled. We have discharged more than 200 people in the past two-and-a-half years.

"We are deadly serious about this. Words and YouTube clips are all well and good but holding people to account for bad actions speaks far louder than any words. I don't think any other army in the world is looking at it like us, which is why I'm asked to speak and share my experiences all around the world now."

In June last year Morrison was invited to London to speak at the Global Summit To End Sexual Violence in Conflict, sharing a stage with former British Conservative Party leader William Hague, US Secretary of State John Kerry and actor and activist Angelina Jolie. "As I said in the speech," Morrison says, "soldiers have a stark choice here, to be either a protector or a perpetrator – there isn't a third option, to be a bystander."

Now his army career is over, Morrison can be sure he didn't waste a crisis. He left the army as what one newspaper called a "global poster boy for women's rights". And as a family man looking forward to doing other things. And, he says, "living a life less regimented, perhaps".

 

Peter Wilmoth

Credit: Fairfax Syndication
This article was first published on March 8, 2015 in The Sunday Age and on Fairfax websites.