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Labor axed ban on gay Defence members

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

Pick the problem here. On one hand, the Australian Defence Force maintained and enforced a policy banning homosexuals in the ranks.

On the other hand, it had just adopted a new policy declaring it had no concern with sexual activities of members provided they didn't interfere with inherent Defence requirements.

Cabinet papers for 1992 and 1993, released by the National Archives of Australia, show the government was aware of this fundamental contradiction.

Over the strong objections of service chiefs, it acted speedily to abolish the long-standing prohibition on homosexuals in the defence force.

The previous policy, formalised in 1986, declared that homosexual conduct was not accepted nor condoned and when a member admitted or was proved to be involved in such conduct, consideration would be given to terminating their service.

That position was becoming increasingly untenable.

In 1990 a discharged lesbian servicewoman complained to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission which cautioned the government the ban was contrary to various international obligations.

The government agreed the ban was inconsistent with its policies on social justice in general, equality of opportunity in particular, as well as the national HIV/AIDS strategy.

Consequently, in conjunction with the commission the government launched a review, with Defence Minister Robert Ray announcing the new policy in the Senate on June 18.

That declared that Defence had "no concern with the sexual activities of its members provided they are not unlawful and are not contrary to or inconsistent with the inherent requirements of the ADF."

This introduced the concept of unacceptable sexual behaviour - any conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual which was "contrary to, or inconsistent with, military objectives and standards of professional and personal conduct required to achieve such objectives."

It gave examples such as sexual harassment and sexual behaviour between students and staff at training institutions.

But as well as the new policy, Ray affirmed the gay ban.

"The problem is that the 1986 and 1992 policies are mutually inconsistent," observed Attorney-General Michael Duffy in a submission to cabinet in November 1992.

Duffy said he and Ray, apparently reflecting the views of defence force chiefs, had been unable to reach an agreed position.

He outlined various options, including exempting Defence from operation of the Human Rights Act.

But rescinding the old policy and implementing non-discriminatory practices and training was the only option which met international obligations and indicated the government's commitment to social justice, he said.

The 1986 policy justified the ban on homosexuality for a variety of reasons. It was said to be prejudicial to effective command relationships and morale and might present security risks.

Health risks were real and well-documented while Defence's responsibility as an employer of minors required they be protected from aberrant behaviour, it said.

The new policy declared sexual relationships and activity were a normal part of adult and predominantly a private matter.

It outlined a broad definition of unacceptable behaviour, citing examples such as the junior female afraid to complain of the sexual advances of her male instructor as he threatened to fail her if she rejected him.

The Labor caucus working group on homosexual policy in the defence force considered and dismissed the objections to halting the ban on homosexuals, recommending it be revoked.

In a submission to cabinet in November 1992, Ray made an unsuccessful last-ditch bid to defer revocation of the ban until there had been a comprehensive survey of attitude of ADF commanders and members.

Group cohesion, bonding and teamwork were the key to survival and success in combat.

"Homosexual behaviour or tendencies destroy the intimate bonding of the group because of the fear that the physical and psychological elements of military cohesion may be misrepresented and mistrusted as sexual in nature and, therefore, intrusive and threatening," his submission said.

Cabinet was unconvinced. It decided to immediately lift the ban and affirmed the 1992 policy on unacceptable sexual behaviour.

It noted the proposals would be supported by civil liberties groups and the homosexual community but criticised by elements of the ADF and probably groups such as the RSL.

A survey conducted in 2000 by a US think tank concluded lifting the ban had not produced any identifiable negative effects on troop morale, combat effectiveness, recruitment and retention.

It just doesn't seemed to have produced the problems some predicted.

Defence has experienced a number of sex scandals, including the "ADFA skype scandal" and "Jedi Council", which involved heterosexual not homosexual misconduct.

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