I AM SURE that most of us can look back and recall occasions when we were perpetrators or targets of hurtful behaviour whether it be the crude jibe or the sly punch of our youth or the arrogant snub or offensive rumour of our middle years. As recipients and perpetrators in our youth the incident was mostly soon forgotten but the more sophisticated snubs and slurs of our middle years tended to linger longer. They can still hurt in our latter years but, by then, we are conditioned to most things, so we shrug off the mean and sly stuff, perhaps because we are too preoccupied with the gammy knee or trying to find our teeth or enjoying our families and our true friends.

What few of us can readily comprehend, however, is what I would describe as institutionalised bastardry. That is what this essay seeks to address. It is about Robyn Fahy who in 1987 graduated as dux of her class at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Her class comprised 126 men and one woman, Robyn Fahy. If we jump some two decades we find that, for the past five years, Lieutenant-Commander Robyn Fahy has been on the navy’s payroll on her full salary doing ad hoc work for an aid group in Perth while also fighting the navy. Her story is that of a victim in a sorry saga of bull-headedness, incompetence, insensitivity and a lack of both genuine and principled leadership and professional personnel management.

When Robyn Fahy was told she would graduate dux of her class her instinctive response was to reject it but she was prevailed upon to accept. She didn’t want it because it would compound the problems which she had experienced at the ADFA and which have plagued her ever since. In a phrase, mindless bastardisation of one kind or another.

Indeed, on the very day of her graduation as dux of class she was jeered and boo-ed by her male classmates. When she marched forward to collect her prize she had spittle on her uniform, courtesy of her colleagues. Through her period at the ADFA she was openly, directly and offensively described by her male classmates, in the grubby patois of the college, in various terms including “Gammy”(uncoordinated), “Abortion”(of no value to human life) and “Squid”(flabby, smell of fish, easy to get into, enfold you with tentacles and squeeze the moral life out of you). She was also punched, slapped, spat on, shoved into walls and otherwise demeaned and insulted during her term at the ADFA.

Bipolar, manic and should be hospitalised

These assaults on her dignity, along with issues subsequent to her graduation, are well documented and, as The Age of May 27, 2006 asserts, are “…part of the mountain of claim generated by Fahy’s war with the Royal Australian Navy, now dragging towards its sixth year.” In the circumstances it is incredible that, having put up with so much at the ADFA and subsequently, she has persisted in her fight for justice. Lieutenant-Commander Robin Fahy shows no disposition to throw in the towel — although it is doubtless the navy’s fervent wish that she do so — but continues her battle with the mandarins on Russell Hill.

In the year 2000 a psychiatrist at the Stirling Base in Western Australia provided an 8-line provisional opinion stating that Robin Fahy was bipolar, manic and should be hospitalised. She was ordered to leave the base. No doctor was present and she was offered no assistance. Within twenty four hours the psychiatrist’s diagnosis was rejected by an independent psychiatrist and the rejection was supported by another psychiatrist a few days later. Four years later, in 2004, the Medical Board of WA concluded after an exhaustive investigation that the navy psychiatrist responsible for the initial diagnosis was guilty of gross carelessness and improper conduct.

I am not normally given to conspiracy theories but I can’t help but wonder if the initial psychiatrist involved — the one with the shonky opinion — was perhaps part of a cumbersome plot to get rid of Fahy by having her declared mentally unbalanced. It is very naughty of me to think in such terms. On reflection there is no way in the world that military bureaucrats would seek to protect their well-polished backsides in such a way! Perish the thought. It is relevant to add that, according to The Age, “It has been a long and, according to one of the nation’s most senior former officers, inglorious fight. Defence handling of the Fahy case has been, he says, ‘disgusting’.”

This young woman is now 39 with a distinguished naval career behind her but for the past four years she has been hovering on full pay in some kind of bureaucratic never-never land. Her career is punctuated with prizes, promotions and plaudits but, rather than wave a white flag to the admirals and their minions, she has chosen to fight on to achieve not only justice but, perhaps more importantly, acknowledgement of the appalling and seemingly mindless injustice to which she has been subjected. And, for all that, she readily concedes that there are some fine people in the services and the related departments but that there are also the bullies and the dysfunctional cultures that remain to be addressed.

It’s time this ugly mess was cleaned up

More evidence of the cause and nature of her plight can be offered but what is more important is to ask why her situation has come to this, why the process has been so constipated, why such a superior talent should have been spurned and hung out to dry on full pay, seemingly until she reaches retirement age.

History has shown that, for all their triumphs in the various conflicts that make up our military history, the services and the defence departments have not always been as professional as managers as they would like to think. Robin Fahy’s problem with the navy is by no means the first such case the services and the defence departments have been required to address and, on the recent record, her case will certainly not be the last.

The concerns and questions are countless. At the bureaucratic level what have the departmental and service heads done to address this problem? What inquiries have been undertaken and with what response? What particular management regimes have been put in place to eliminate circumstances of the kind that have plagued Robin Fahy? What staff and military training is provided to not only minimise but eliminate any kind of bastardisation, bullying or other unacceptable behaviour at any level of the defence system? What penalties are applied to miscreants whether they are cadets at the ADFA or gong-laden posturers in the very senior officers’ canteen?

Then there is that old, bruised, maligned, fundamental but mostly ignored notion of ministerial responsibility. From Beazley in the late 1980’s through Ray, McLachlan, Moore, Reith and Hill to the present incumbent, Brendon Nelson, did any of these ministers of defence seek to do anything about the kind of treatment to which Robyn Fahy has been subjected? If so, what did they do and to what effect? If they did nothing, why did they do nothing? Would they like their daughters to be subjected to such treatment? Or is it a case of big, older, important, busy ministerial boys taking the position that the matter is one for the lower ladder lads? Whether they like it or not, ultimately all the bucks stop with the minister, this one in particular because it strikes at the very essence of principled leadership and administration. Alas, the track record of this and indeed of most recent governments is to pretend that the question of ministerial responsibility only arises as a valid concept when your party is in opposition.

Besides, how would the defence departments and services respond if a well-funded and purposeful interest group ran a campaign urging that you dissuade your son/daughter from seeking to join the army/navy/air force because they’ll punch and spit on your squid daughter, belt your abortion son and give them even more grief after they have graduated. They would consider it abhorrent and disloyal and, in a narrow sense, they would be quite correct. And yet it has happened, often, and is anyone game to say it is not still happening?

It is time this whole ugly mess was cleaned up, completely, for good. Where are you Brendon Nelson? Here is your chance to clean up the human side of your portfolio and assure the Australian people that you have done so.