Tony Abbott's comments in defence of ADF culture (here, about three-quarters of the way down) are instructive. It's true that ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other profession. It's also true that, while pride in the armed forces is not unique to conservatives, it is central to conservative conceptions of Australia, its (sorry, 'her') history and the purpose of government. You can understand why he'd want to represent any sort of criticism of the ADF as a swingeing assault of an institution at the core of the nation's life, one of great pride to almost all Australians, as a political maneuver to portray Labor as antithetical to the nation's values. Even so, it didn't work.
Every Federal MP who has been in office a while will have received complaints from those who had been dedicated members of the Australian Defence Force, but who had found themselves ensnared in some Kafkaesque nightmare and shunted out of what was not only their career but part of an attempt to fuse their identity with that of the nation. I would be very surprised if the office of the Member for Warringah is an exception to that.
Over many years, we have seen story after story after story about how the ADF is endemically unable to deal with the sorts of sexual harassment cases. The "rotten apple" thing becomes unconvincing after a while.
This was an opportunity for Abbott to start identifying his weaknesses and working on turning them around - particularly his standing with women, at a time when a female Prime Minister was supposedly so weak that she was a role model to nobody. By defending the ADF from any and all charges of misogyny and ineptitude, and linking such failure to "the ANZAC spirit", he has not won or retained a single vote. Nobody who is vaguely regretting having voted Labor in 2010 is convinced that they must vote Coalition at the next opportunity as a result of that effort. His whole position on that issue was not worth taking, and almost certainly did his cause some harm.
Abbott's claim that if there is no crime committed then there is no problem, and that a commander who has been clumsy is unworthy of censure, rings hollow. You don't want your leader ringing hollow. Especially not on International Women's Day: the whole idea that Peta Credlin, Julie Bishop, any female Coalition MP/Senator/candidate or even his own daughters provide civilising influences on Abbott's more Neanderthal tendencies is completely rubbished by his attempts to rally the lads to a dysfunctional status quo. Good, positive policy like this sank like a SIEV. It was dopey politics, squandering an opportunity to stick it to a supposedly vulnerable government.
Coalition supporters will tell you that Abbott is under no obligation to release his policies early, and they're right. Policy papers don't have the impact they once did, when journalists and voters would write to the offices of the respective parties requesting policy papers so that they could compare and discuss them. Policy papers these days are advertising copy made up of dot-points. They are not worth writing, let alone reading, and what little detail they have becomes non-core in the face of the inevitable post-election Budget Black Hole. The idea that All Will Be Revealed In Good Time when the policy documents are released is a joke. Every statement, every vote over the course of a term builds a picture of what a government or an opposition is like, a picture that even the most lavish ad campaign can't shake.
All that no, no, no has entered the soul of the Coalition, and has certainly coloured public perceptions of them even if they haven't quite hardened into voting intentions (more reasons why polls are crap). Policy papers promising love and sunshine from the Coalition can't and won't change that, not even with uncritical media coverage. The squandered opportunities to bring out the best in ADF personnel by casting out the worst is one example: if you're going to get rid of dud teachers, surely the task is all the more urgent with dud ADF personnel. ADF personnel don't get to choose the teams they are assigned to, they have to work with whomever they're assigned to work with: in that context harassment/bullying can be seen as insubordination. It is bullshit to assert that a creep who harasses subordinates is really a mighty warrior and must be respected as such. Tony Abbott has committed the Coalition to not improving but maintaining an ADF which is weakened by its failure to tackle the sorts of problems that have largely been addressed (if not entirely resolved) in wider Australian society. Be it on his own head, and on those who would stand with him.
The Australian is rarely more pathetic when it tries to put one over its own readers. It reports this, it reports that, but fails to link the two as part of a whole problem within the ADF, and adequately assess whether it is Abbott or Smith who is taking the most appropriate response. Nobody expects that
Abbott insists that the Defence Minister must have the confidence of the ADF, but I can't think of a single occupant of that office who was ever really beloved from the top brass to the lowest ranks for having personnel interest at heart. Peter Reith came closest to bending the ADF to his will when he defended the claim that asylum-seekers had thrown children into the Arafura Sea despite ADF personnel, respectfully and deferentially, disagreeing that any such thing had taken place. His career ended soon thereafter.
The fact that the Shadow Defence Minister is invisible and hasn't mixed it with Defence policy wonks is a concern because it gives no indicaton as to what we might expect in this area from a Coalition government. It's extraordinary for conservatives, who supposedly live and breathe Defence stuff. Contrast Johnston's small-target obscurity with Smith's up-front, almost Keatingesque, approach.
Smith deserves credit for taking on that culture, ending the last vestiges of gender-specific roles and giving the benefit of the doubt to complainants over ossified symbols of an unsustainable way of operating. Airing of those old assault cases, giving hope to the possibility of a military justice system that was destroyed by sticking up for the alco-loser in command of of HMAS Melbourne in the 1960s, is no small thing.
Apart from the essential purchase of transport vessels for the Navy, Smith has avoided being sucked in to the expensive, underperforming defence equipment purchases that have ruined the reputations of his predecessors back to Reith. Drones seem to have almost obviated the tank and perhaps the fighter jet, and it could be that drone submarines are the answer to the problem facing the Navy is staffing and equipping our underwater defences. Smith seems to believe that if he can get the right people and get rid of some dickheads, smarter decisions and recommendations will result. Stephanie Peatling's article on Smith's handling of disciplinary issues at ADFA is the best article on that topic.
Whether we're talking about the Defence needs of the nation, or the right of one person to feel like they're valued on their merits rather than their gender, you have to wish Smith good luck because at least he's trying. It's more than you can hope for from the Coalition under its current leadership.
Update: Hugh Riminton raises doubts for old Walkley's sake, but ends up vindicating Smith rather than condemning him. The differentiation between shaving foam and Jif made Riminton look absurd, rather than Smith being "wrong on every level". As an old scoophound he is no doubt grateful for a leaked document on which to hang a story, but he should have questioned the leaker's/s' motives more closely.