<em>Illustration:Simon Bosch</em>

Illustration: Simon Bosch

It was one of the most important speeches in Australian military history, but not a word has been written about it.

On an ear-bitingly cold day in New York this year, Australia's Army Chief, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, stood in front of several hundred people in an auditorium at the United Nations headquarters, in full uniform, with polished badges pinned to his chest. It was March 5, International Women's Day; outside women were marching in the snow, hats jammed on heads as winds whistled across the East River.

Inside, the crowd stared at the military man who had come to talk to the UN women's council. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who was also speaking there, said they were ''astonished, taken aback''. First, that a military chief was there, and second, that he was so passionate about gender equality.

He started off by acknowledging his own limitations: ''Foremost, I can never fully imagine, much less experience, the issues faced by any woman. I was born male in an advanced Western nation to comfortably well-off parents. I have never routinely experienced discrimination in my career, nor the apprehension of violence in my personal life. Most benefits of masculinity and patriarchy have accrued to me. Nonetheless, I hope those considerable limitations in my perspective can in part be offset by my sincere intent to support women in my organisation to thrive in the absence of both.''

Morrison, who has led the Australian Army since 2011, then recounted why he was there.

A year earlier, Broderick had taken three army women who had been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers to talk with Morrison, and sat with them for hours as they told their stories. They sobbed as a stricken Morrison assured them this should never have happened to anyone, and that he was deeply sorry. He said it was his ''Road to Damascus'' moment. Broderick believes this is how you effect change: ''When you engage people's hearts, that's when transformational things happen''.

And so a crusade began.

It was important to remember how change can happen this week, while watching the seven women on the US Senate Defence Committee forcing the military, and the Congress, to take violence against women in the American armed forces seriously. They grilled military chiefs about sexual assault, and debated seven pieces of legislation designed to deal with what is now being called a ''crisis'' and ''cancer''.

The Pentagon found 26,000 members of the armed forces experienced unwanted sexual contact last year. Women in the defence force are more likely to be assaulted by fellow soldiers than killed in combat.

Just recently, a West Point sergeant was charged with covertly filming female cadets in the shower and the head of the air force sexual assault convention program was arrested for grabbing a woman's breasts in a car park. As Barack Obama said so well: ''Honour, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking''. Which is also what you hope showering might be.

In Australia, a recent report found one in four women in the Australian Defence Force had been sexually harassed, though few reported it. It is a systemic, cultural, destructive and ongoing problem. But unlike America, criminal courts weigh charges of assault in armed forces, not military tribunals. And here, our Sex Discrimination Commissioner has worked closely with an army chief who has become one of her ''male champions of change''. It remains to be seen what he can achieve, but he is determined to make a start.

Morrison told the UN council the story of the women he met, who ''had endured appalling physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their fellow soldiers''. They had been let down by leaders and comrades, ''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''.

Even the Anzac legend, he said, had become ''something of a double-edged sword''. It was misleading and damaging: ''Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough-hewn country lad - invariably white - a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is.''

The 57-year-old soldier and father of three sons was angry that in a crisis, these women ''had not been able to rely on their mates: in other words the very thing that we claim as our defining ethos had been used to exclude and humiliate others. I am resolved to make improvements to our culture one of the fundamental elements of the legacy that I hope to leave the Australian Army''.

Morrison then recounted some of his specific goals, including increasing the number of women in the army from 3000 to 3600 by the middle of next year. He has set specific recruiting targets, provided pre-enlistment fitness programs for women, allowed for shared leave between couples and launched an investigation into childcare. In September 2011, it was announced women would be allowed into combat roles by 2016. In January this year, the army implemented ''trade specific physical standards based on capability, not age or gender''.

To get women into more senior ranks, Morrison has told the hierarchy to rethink recognition of merit. When I asked for an example, he said we should value the ''skills that come with having and looking after children''. He has begun promoting women when they return from maternity leave in order to retain them.

After the speech, Broderick says she sent Morrison a text: ''There are four women wanting to join the army and three offering marriage proposals.''

Morrison has a huge job: there will be more rot uncovered, more scandals, more frustration. He ended a phone interview by stressing he is acutely conscious of how much remains to be done. ''Change is bloody hard and it takes generations but you have to take steps. The sign of success is when the momentum does not rely on the leader. I have implicit faith this will carry forward.''

Morrison's term ends in July next year. We can only hope his successor won't make the road to Damascus a dead end, but a highway.

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