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Chief of Army White Ribbon Day address

Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, Chief of Army, addressed The King's School at a White Ribbon Day event.

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Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO.

Address: Chief of Army address to The King's School at a White Ribbon Day event, Sydney, Friday 14 November 2014.

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It is an honour to be invited to address this event today and an honour to be an Ambassador for White Ribbon. I compliment The Kings School on this event. Your school has a very proud tradition of developing, indeed nurturing, leaders for our communities and for our Nation. It is my view that in the matter of violence against women such leadership, especially from men, is urgently required.

I know to some of you that I must appear really old, and far removed from the lives you lead. Its true. I am much closer to 60 than 50, and when I was your age 50 was really old, almost ancient!

I run the risk of taking what I used to call a “senior officer approach” – to speak of lofty ideals and to encourage you to all live your lives better, to tell a few anecdotes, receive a polite vote of thanks and then climb into my car and disappear having made a brief and not particularly deep impression.

But I am not going to take a senior officer approach. I don’t really “do anecdotes” anymore, and I certainly haven’t travelled out to The Kings School to have what I say forgotten by lunch.

The matter that I am going to address affects us all – boys, men, Australians. It is not about some pornographic or violent image carried across a television or computer screen to be ogled at, or smirked over. It is not about some lurid tale told by friends to each other – its about real flesh and blood, people you know, or who you will meet in the course of your lives. Its about who we are - as a school community, a sporting team, or an Army. Most of all its about you.

I have seen, first hand, great violence perpetrated against women and children, almost entirely by men, around the world in the course of my long career as a soldier. I have stood besides the shattered remnants of families, crushed by the crimes committed against them, despairing that they will ever be able to live in hope again.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor, the Solomon Islands, Bougainville; all so far from Australia; all so remote from the lives we lead.

But here is the rub. I have come to understand that the terrible things that happen in warzones – murder, rape, assaults, the stripping away of dignity, the absence of hope - they are just as much present in our own communities, in our own families, as they are in other more seemingly troubled countries. Its just that they happen behind closed doors, away from the lens of a war correspondent, ignored by neighbours or even family members, unspoken but just as life shattering.

If it was just the statistics the picture would be grim by any measure – one women is murdered every week in Australia by a current or former partner. One in three women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence at some stage of their lives.

Did you know that recent reports in Australia show that one in seven boys aged between 12 and 20 believe its OK to force a girl to have sex if she was flirting? That one in three boys believes that violence against women occurs because the women provokes it? Where do you fit in this terrible snapshot of who we actually are?

But it is not the statistics – it’s the lives. It’s the hopes and aspirations that we, all of us, men and women, should have as our birthright as Australians. Aspirations and hopes that are smashed and rendered useless sometimes by those who are seemingly closest to us.

And its not just individual lives, as terrible as this violence is. Its how, as a consequence we define ourselves – as men, as brothers, as sons, partners, husbands, as Australians, as leaders within our communities, our institutions and our Nation.

How has it come to this and what can we do?

Let me give you an account of something that happened to me as the Chief of Army that set in stark relief the challenge that faces us all, especially men. I will tell you what I learned from it and how I have changed, even at the ripe old age of 58.

Several years ago, just after I had started my current appointment, I was asked by a women of exceptional integrity, Ms Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, to make time to hear from some of the women whose experiences she had been collating as part of her study into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force.

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 adult life and of which I had been fiercely proud since I was young boy.

That shame is still there but it has now morphed into an implacable resolve to do something about it – in the Army and in the Country I love. That’s why I am here today – because you are Australia’s future, more than me or your teachers. You are the leaders of the 2020s and beyond. You need to better than me if we are to make a difference.

And after wrestling with what to do and discussing it with men and women I trust; after taking part in further engagement with victims of violent, sexual crimes, I have concluded that our military culture, as strong as it is in certain regards, has within it deep and terrible flaws. And I have gone further. I now feel that much of what we call our Australian culture has the same faults that must be addressed.

This is a bleak view. I am no sociologist. I have no anthropological training, but I am certain of this: we live in a world where, increasingly, the squandering of women’s talent, the traducing of their potential, is a global disgrace.

By every credible measure, women are denied opportunities that are accorded to men as a birthright of their sex. At home they face levels of domestic violence that imperil their very being. This is the case in so called first-world nations and in the developing world; it is a feature of secular and non-secular societies. Women face barriers, sometimes tangible, often subliminal, that constrain their lives and their contributions to the development of our world.

We need men of authority and conscience to play their part and we most certainly need women, too long denied a strong enough voice, to be given opportunities to lead – in all endeavors, in all parts of our polity and society. We all need to come to grips with our culture and how much it counts.

I have been at the forefront of leading cultural change in the Army and I think I only now understand just how much it does.

It shapes our perspective of who we are: as Australians, as members of a particular profession, as supporters of a sporting team, or school. It is usually intangible: a sense of identity, a shared but often unspoken alliance with others of our group. Indeed, it is so intangible at times, it defies ready definition and wilts when examined forensically. When it is made tangible it is often through totems – a badge, a slouch hat, a school uniform, a national flag. It is bolstered by the stories we tell each other about ourselves and herein lies culture’s great strength and weakness.

Let me give you an example and its close to the bone for me, a soldier in his 36th year of service, whose father was also a soldier. My Dad joined the Army in 1945, and our service briefly over-lapped, so together we have served the Nation for 70 unbroken years. No one loves the Army more than me and our soldiers have done wonderful work in Australia’s name for over a century. But still I can say that parts of our culture must change.

Why? Because in the hands of some, the stories that we tell each other about ourselves are exclusive, not inclusive. They reinforce a view of “us and them”. In hyper masculine environments, like armies, “them” is defined by being weaker physically, not drinking ‘like a man’, not bragging of sexual conquest, being more introverted or intellectual, and of course being female.

I think that such distortion is a strong element in one of our great foundation narratives, not just for the Army but for Australia. I am talking about ANZAC.

The ANZAC legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. For the Army, the most pervasive distortion about what really happened in Turkey in 1915 is that many Australians now have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a simple country lad – hair gold, skin white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms.

Where do women, or indigenous soldiers fit in that narrative? They don’t and so, over time, such stories become myths and then myths become legends and then they become some unalterable truth.

What stories do you tell about yourself, your mates, your families, your school? What is your culture? Is it exclusive? Does it celebrate the male over the female? Is it supported by views of women as pieces of flesh, stylised and captured in the waves of pornography that sweep now through social media?

Further, I think that these stories are buoyed by aspects of our national culture in a way that makes it very hard for young men such as yourselves to resist the pressures to conform? A national culture that sees, in the wake of a terrible incidence of domestic violence, in which the lives of a mother and her three children are taken by the man who is the husband and father, media reports that focus on how hard his life had become; how much he had been a loving man even in the act of murder.

What can be done? The first step is recognise this great, essential issue that confronts us all. In that The Kings School is making a wonderful contribution in raising the matter with you all.

But more needs be done, especially by leaders such as me. Involving yourself with White Ribbon is an excellent place to start. Your Army’s commitment to White Ribbon is not merely symbolic; it reflects the best of our culture and values. We are challenging ourselves to promote positive attitudes and behaviours in the workplace and in the community. I encourage Army members to intervene to prevent violence against women. I also encourage my commanders to become White Ribbon Ambassadors and our soldiers to swear the White Ribbon oath. And while we're not perfect, we are genuinely trying to be better.

And for you? Well here is the really hard part. It is not enough for you to just abstain from hurting women; from treating them as sexual objects rather than as people with an innate right to lead a dignified life. It is not enough to refrain from distributing foul images or stories that attack the well being of others.

No, the really hard part is to do all that as well as ensuring that you are not a bystander when such things do happen. This means not shrouding yourself in the comfortable shades of grey that comprise the passive acquiescence of the malevolent acts of others. It requires you to recognise that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept and that you are judged not just on your actions, but on how you allow others to act.

This call to arms is daunting. It requires drawing on the most special of all human qualities – moral courage. I have failed at times in my life to apply it when it was needed and I am bitter, on reflection, that I did not. I certainly don’t ask of anyone to be perfect. How could I when I am so imperfect? But I am implacable in my resolve to be better and so should you.

Nothing gets to the core of what I am talking about today more directly than an inspirational message from a man who was murdered while running for the Presidency of the United States. His name was Robert F. Kennedy and like his brother before him he was assassinated while doing what he believed in.

He summed up the power that one honourable man or woman can exert when they step up and declare, “I can make a difference.”

He said: “It is from the numberless acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Every time someone stands up for an ideal, or speaks against an injustice, or moves to improve the lot of a fellow human being, they send a tiny ripple of hope - and crossing one another from a million different centres of energy and daring, those tiny ripples can build up to a tidal wave capable of sweeping away the mightiest walls of resistance and oppression.”

This requires leadership and leadership involves giving yourself to others. It is not about being the boss. Rather the best leaders serve others. They believe in something bigger than themselves.

In closing, I want you to reflect on the concept of legacy. You, me, all of us are the legacy of those who have shaped our lives to this point – families, friends, role models. We are the legacies of our experiences, both good and bad. We are individuals, but we are members of our communities and the greater Australian society.

So what is the legacy you will leave? Much of what it will be, how it will influence others, maybe how it will serve, in time, as a role model in itself is down to you. Maybe your ripple of change will be larger and have greater weight because of who you are and how you convey your convictions and your beliefs.

The world awaits your contribution. It desperately needs your idealism and energy. Good luck. Prosper mightily.