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Defence Force failed to tackle 'code of silence' on sexual assault, harassment — report

A new Ministry of Defence report shows Operation Respect – the New Zealand Defence Force’s flagship attempt to stamp out sexual violence and harassment – has largely failed to embed the culture change it promised, and fear and silence still surround issues of sexual harm. Alison Mau reports.

When former New Zealand Defence Force chief Tim Keating stepped down in 2018, he lauded the “great strides” it had made to build a safer work environment for women, thanks to Operation Respect.

Now, the Chief of Air Force, Air Vice Marshall Andrew Clark, is promising to try again in the wake of a damning report into the programme’s efficacy.

The 68-page report – authored by Debbie Teale and Dr Carol MacDonald – found a “code of silence” prevails in the Army, Air Force and Navy.

Many personnel do not report serious issues like sexual violence “because they fear the repercussions and do not trust the NZDF processes and systems”, it said.

“The culture of military discipline and command makes it difficult for personnel to raise concerns or speak out against the behaviour or decisions made by their immediate manager or others more senior in the hierarchy.”

Launched in 2016, Operation Respect’s timeline promised an “end state” where a healthy and safe environment was achieved by 2018.

“We can look back and say that was [a] rose-tinted view,” Clark said ahead of the report’s release on Thursday.

He admitted there were still people in senior positions in the Defence Force who “didn’t see the problem” and that it had been harder than expected to get buy-in on Operation Respect from senior staff.

He promised to “drive down the sense of ownership to base and camp level”.

Immediate action is being taken on a number of the report’s key recommendations, including:

  • Liaising with the Chief Ombudsman to create a standalone Defence Ombudsman, similar to the one operating in Australia
  • Agreement from the Auditor General for two-yearly external audits of the programme
  • Promoting the Government’s Safe To Talk sexual abuse helpline within the forces and ensuring Defence was able to learn lessons from the data
  • Appointing a senior military “co-lead” from each of the forces by September to drive culture change
  • Overhauling the inadequate data collection attached to Operation Respect, with a new data management tool in place by December.

Clark said the Defence Force had seen a “significant increase in people coming forward to tell their stories” since Operation Respect was launched four years ago.

“I think one of the key pieces of this report is that we still have people out there who do not feel as though they can come forward.”

Members of a group that consulted with the Defence Force on the programme said they were “incredibly angry” after reading the report.

Tracey Thompson and Karina Andrews, the daughters of Air Force child rapist Robert Roper, said they had repeatedly told the Defence Force since 2016 that transparency and accountability were crucial.

The report showed they hadn’t been listened to, they said.

“When I read that some leaders said they do not believe that harmful sexual behaviours exist, I was livid,” Thompson said.

“What are those leaders doing there? Wake up and get down from your ivory tower, it's 2020.”

Andrews was “appalled” to see the phrase “code of silence” mentioned nine times in the report and said Operation Respect training should be offered right from the start of basic training.

Tracey Thompson, left, Karina Andrews and Cherie Ham have given the Defence Force a survivor’s view on sexual assault.

Tracey Thompson, left, Karina Andrews and Cherie Ham have given the Defence Force a survivor’s view on sexual assault.


She said she and her sister had told the Defence Force that external oversight was crucial, but it was clear “the NZDF is policing the NZDF”.

“This is the stuff they should have listened to us about, from moment one.”

But Thompson said she remains hopeful the report will bring meaningful change within the armed forces.

“They have a fantastic opportunity with this report, being as bad as it is. I do have faith they will turn this around, and I believe they have the right four men in those chairs [Defence Force chiefs] to do that.”

Hayley Browne, a former Naval officer who says she was raped on deployment in 2009, is also hopeful senior leadership will start to address cultural change “with more vigour”.

Browne, who is now a Napier City councillor, said the Ministry of Defence could help make Operation Respect work.

“Having served in the military, I know these things get taken over by operational demands. I think the ministry has a really big role to play in this, so [the Defence Force] can put money, time and energy into changing the culture.”

David White/Stuff