Incidents of sexual assault in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) remain at near-record levels with 161 sexual assaults reported to Military Police in 2019-20.
Many women subjected to sexual assault have reported a lack of support or victimisation during the complaints process, highlighting a failure by the ADF to hold alleged perpetrators to account. Many reported cases have not proceeded to an investigation and many of the women involved felt they had to abandon their careers in the ADF.
Of the 131 complaints of sexual assault, involving 180 alleged perpetrators, referred by the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART) to Defence, only three have resulted in any formal administrative or disciplinary action.
This lack of support and accountability has resulted in female service personnel and veterans taking their own lives in recent months. Ex-service women have a suicide rate twice that of the general female population, while a majority of female veterans who suffer a mental health condition have been victims of sexual abuse in the ADF.
More broadly, the proportion of female members in the ADF remains low at around 19 per cent, while there are fewer women in senior leadership roles and fewer promotion opportunities for women.
The Government has failed to address cultural issues within Defence, and has refused to take seriously issues of sexual abuse in the ADF and veteran suicide. When women in Defence report these incidents, they need to be dealt with properly and not swept under the carpet.
Despite a number of reviews and measures put in place to prevent sexual assaults and abuse under the former Labor government, the number of incidents has not improved over the last eight years under this government, while rates of veteran suicide have worsened.
Abuse and harassment in any workforce should not be tolerated. Labor is committed to ensuring that those who have been abused during their time in the ADF receive the support they need.
It was the former Labor Government that initiated the DART in response to reports of sexual misconduct within the ADF. As a result of this report, the Defence Force Ombudsman’s role was expanded to include an abuse reporting function. Also under the previous Labor government, a review by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner led to the establishment of the ADF’s Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office.
Labor has been calling for a Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicides since 2019.
Now that the Government has finally announced this, Labor’s view is that the role of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the impacts of sexual abuse of female defence personnel, on mental health need to be included in the Terms of Reference.
The draft themes released by the Government do not refer to these issues, however it is vital that they are considered by the Royal Commission and that it has the power to make findings of civil and criminal wrongdoing.