By SEAN POWER
I reckon that one of the best things about reading is when you find an article that completely flips any prejudices you have about something on its head.
And that’s exactly what happened to me on Saturday morning, waiting at the train station, hung-over and tired, when I finished Julia Baird’s yarn on a bloke that every Australian should already know more about.
As soon as I hit the last punctuation point, my head started spinning and I fired up. I was angry that it had taken three months for word to spread about this Australian fella and his achievement.
Meet Australia’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison.
Now, if you just read that name, with it’s military rankings, rolled your eyes, thought of a burly sexist wanker in camouflage who’s probably been a part of the boys’ club his entire life, stick with me, and get ready to go on a rollercoaster ride.
On March the 8th of this year, Lieutenant Morrison took to the stage at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. It was International Women’s Day.
As Baird described, Morrison stood on stage in his military uniform, wearing badges that he had earned since he joined the Army in 1979, some 34 years ago.
Right from the first paragraph, it was pretty clear this wasn’t going to be a fluff-piece fueled by the desire for a junket trip overseas:
It is an honour to be invited to address this conference today. For some time the Australian Defence Organisation has formally observed International Women’s Day.
That is altogether appropriate.
However, as all of you are no doubt aware, such formalities are rendered much less meaningful unless they are underpinned by tangible progress for women.
And that necessarily implies cultural change in environments which have not been as conducive as they must be to women realising their full potential.
Firstly, I must of necessity express some obvious qualifications about my remarks.
Foremost, I can never fully imagine, much less experience, the issues faced by any woman. I was born male in an advanced Western nation, to comfortably well off parents.
I have never routinely experienced discrimination in my career, nor the apprehension of violence in my personal life. Far too many women regardless of nationality, religion, or class status have known both.
Most benefits of masculinity and patriarchy have accrued to me.
Nonetheless, I hope those considerable limitations in my perspective can in part be offset by my sincere intent to support women in my organisation to thrive in the absence of both.
Ah, er, hang on – where are all the weasel words, the evasive language and the spin?
Did this speech even get vetted?
It can’t have continued, can it?
Yep, it sure did.
And it only got stronger:
When I assumed command of the Australian Army in July 2011 it was apparent that we needed to squarely face some serious cultural problems, in particular the manner in which we treated our female soldiers, those from ethnic minorities and those with alternative sexual preferences.
There was, and still is, a recurring problem with alcohol abuse and social media which has periodically detracted from our reputation.
I came to my role as Chief convinced that we had a real and systemic problem in these areas. In that sense I was already a believer. The evidence had become incontrovertible.
I was no longer comforted by the cliché that a ‘few bad apples’ were undermining the great work of the vast majority.
Nor was I willing to argue that a widely publicised incident at our Defence Academy – where a sexual encounter between a young female cadet and a colleague was telecast via Skype – was no worse than conduct among young people on civilian campuses.
In just over twenty minutes, and in just under eight pages, Morrison performed what I’d like to call a ‘bloody gigantic, game changing, smack down’.
Julia Baird, in her own article, called it ‘one of the most important speeches in Australian military history’.
Morrison had more in the tank:
In too many cases the team has been defined through exclusion of women. This simply has to stop – both for altruistic and pragmatic reasons. I like to think I am as altruistic as the next person but my motives are essentially pragmatic.
Organisations with high levels of what can be termed as ‘social capital’ are more effective, both in their performance and ability to retain their highly skilled personnel much longer.
In other words making the most effective use of our female soldiers makes good sense. It enhances our capability. That is a simple truth.
Indeed, given the demographic changes affecting the Australian workforce over the next few decades, the Army will simply not be able to meet its recruiting targets or maintain its range of skills unless we become fully representative of the community from which we draw.
Not even the controversial ANZAC legend was left untouched:
In that regard the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms.
This is a pantomime caricature.
Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is.
Good stuff, right?
Some of you might have read this far in and think that I’ve fallen for the greatest PR move of all time.
You might believe that an over-paid Defence speechwriter, who was desperate for some good coverage on an issue that has continued plagued the force, wrote everything that I’m high-fiving.
Nah, not this time. This bloke is the real deal.
The first: Julia Baird, who is one Australia’s best journalists, doesn’t fall for that sort spin. If this speech was good enough for Baird to write about without ripping it shreds, it’s been through the bullshit test.
The second: Elisabeth Broderick, Australia’s very own Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has called Morisson one of her own “male champions of change”. Broderick is one of the toughest critics around. There is no way that Morrison couldn’t have bluffed his way to earn that label.
The third: these, some of the most important quotes, taken from Morrison’s speech:
One day early last year Elisabeth Broderick called me and suggested that I needed to hear from some of the women whose experiences she had been collating. I agreed, not reluctantly but certainly with some trepidation.
Not long after I was sitting very uncomfortably, and with mounting disbelief, through lengthy face-to-face meetings with three women who had endured appalling physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their fellow soldiers; so much for our pride in looking after our mates.
These women had been let down by their leaders and their comrades. They had been robbed of that irreplaceable component of their individual human personal identity – their dignity and self respect. This was not the Army that I had loved and thought I knew.
My disbelief gave way, in turn, to shame that this had occurred in the institution to which I had devoted my entire life and of which I had been fiercely proud since I was young boy.
That was my conversion experience and it had all the qualities of the road to Damascus apart from the fall from the horse.
After that searing meeting with those female soldiers I was even more determined that I was going to achieve real change in our culture.
I was angry, that in a crisis, those three women, and many others to whom Liz Broderick had spoken, had not been able to rely on their mates. In other words the very thing that we claim as our defining ethos had been used to exclude and humiliate others. I am resolved to make improvements to our culture one of the fundamental elements of the legacy that I hope to leave the Australian Army.
This speech should never have had to be written.
The issues it addresses should never have occurred.
However, regrettably, they did, and the seriousness of them went unrecognised for too long.
But now we have a bloke from Victoria that was raised within the Australian Military, who has climbed his way to the top, and is smashing down the ancient barrack walls that reek of patriarchy.
Let’s give the bloke a pat on the back.
Congratulations Lieutenant General David Morrison.
You’ve talked the talk mate; now make sure you walk the walk.
Sean Power is a twenty-one-year-old television producer and columnist for Cosmopolitan Australia. You can follow him on Twitter at @POWERSOZ. He’s also written other articles for Mamamia here and appeared on Mamamia on Sky News here and here.
What do you think about Lieutenant General David Morrison’s speech? Is there a need for institutional change in the defence forces?