David Morrison: From army chief to Australian of the Year

David Morrison says his Australian of the Year honour gives him a wonderful opportunity to share his views on a number of issues. Photographer: Jarrod Barnes.

As chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison fought to improve the culture of the organisation and the treatment of women in its ranks. It’s a battle he’s now waging in the wider community.

It was the anger that struck people most. When the chief of the Australian Army spoke to his troops three years ago in the wake of two sex scandals committed by men under his charge, there was no mistaking the depth of his feelings.

In an internal video that soon went viral, an irate Lieutenant General David Morrison said there was no place in the army for those who believed it was OK to demean or exploit their colleagues.

“If that does not suit you,” he said, “then get out.”

Morrison was responding to the so-called “Skype scandal” in which consensual sex between two cadets was filmed and broadcast online without the woman’s knowledge. That was followed in 2013 by the discovery that up to 100 army personnel were involved in the exchange of sexually explicit emails.

“Whatever notoriety I’ve received, it is on the shoulders of those men and women who served in the army.”

The revelations rocked the army and shocked the nation. At the same time, Australia’s then sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick was reviewing the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and reported some grim findings.

Morrison reacted by deploying the full force of his position as chief of the army. He was unambiguous in his message and ruthless in his delivery. He ordered a thorough investigation, and the offenders were dismissed, charged or disciplined. 

His actions were those of a man whose father believed in fairness and whose mother detested bullies.

“My father was a man of extraordinary humanity and great moral courage,” Morrison tells former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.

“He would be my strongest supporter in taking a stance on fairness and equality now.”

Former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick delivered some grim findings on the treatment of women in the ADF.

Morrison and his senior colleagues were already involved in a program to promote gender diversity and equality in the army – a program prompted by Broderick’s recommendations. They were setting targets to increase the number of women in the ranks and changing policies and messaging on recruiting and maternity leave. The scandals only reinforced Morrison’s resolve. 

Morrison was a career army man, just like his father, Major General Alan “Alby” Morrison. He retired in 2015 after 36 years in the Australian Army – the last four of those years as its chief. 

In 2016, he was named Australian of the Year, an honour that surprised him. He has spent the past eight months using that public platform to continue to push the diversity agenda and raise awareness of domestic violence. He’s also been more quietly pushing for Australia to become a republic.

Alex Malley: David, I want to delve into your childhood and ask you what happened in a Canberra theatre when you won your public speaking contest for the ACT? You were in high school …

Lieutenant General David Morrison (ret): Gosh, that was in 1973! I’m delighted to be able to say that it was my old man, who was the most wonderful orator – he’s been dead for eight years now, but I learnt so much from him, not just about public speaking obviously, but so much in life – he and I wrote the speech.

Malley: I understand at your dad’s funeral he filled two chapels and had more than 600 people. That must have given you a sense of pride and of what your dad’s life was to so many people.

Morrison: My father was the single greatest male role model in my life. He was a man of extraordinary humanity and great moral courage. He was a man of his times. He was born in 1927 and served as an officer in the army from 1945 through to the early 1980s.

I have absolutely not one shred of doubt that he would be my strongest supporter in taking a stance on fairness and equality now. He was one of those men who absolutely believed that everybody should be given a chance in life.

Malley: And your mum was heavily involved with [child protection organisation] Barnardo’s, among other charities?

Morrison: Mum was an extraordinary woman. She wasn’t a successful professional woman; that was not something that filled her life. But she filled it with commitment and friendship and wonderful support.

Dad filled the chapels because he was just so deeply admired. His last few years had been terrible because he had succumbed to an Alzheimer’s-related illness. He was exceptionally popular in the army and I often found myself as a young officer standing in a crowd where people would be extolling the virtues of my father. I would wait for a pause then say, “Yes, but I take after my mother”.

She used to love me doing it, too, because mum was loving and supportive, but she was feisty as well and she absolutely detested bullies. My parents were the most extraordinary people and I’m deeply, deeply grateful that I was their son.

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Cultural change

Malley: What drove you to take on the task of looking at culture within the army? Who were your allies through that process and would there be anything now that you’d do differently?

Morrison: The only thing that I would do differently is commence it more quickly and earlier; I wouldn’t do it any other way. It was a team effort. The issues around culture can’t be changed by one person; they can only be changed by the men and women who make up the organisation. I’m deeply uncomfortable being the Australian of the Year, because whatever notoriety I’ve received, it is on the shoulders of those men and women who served in the army and who realise that the case for change was overwhelming and that they would do something about it. They are the real heroes here, not me.

I don’t think that throughout my long career I was ever reticent in trying to be fair in situations. The real matter is that when you head an organisation, you have custodianship of that organisation’s name, reputation, ethos, ethical foundations.

And there were a series of incidences and life-changing conversations, not just with people like Elizabeth Broderick but with women who have been affected by mistreatment and, in some cases, criminal behaviour by their peers, that gave me that sense of custodianship and of a real imperative to try to do something about it.

The culture of the army, indeed the culture of the defence force throughout its century of service, has been outstanding. I’m its greatest supporter. It’s the same men and women in the most dire of circumstances for over 100 years, but [this is] a recalibration to ensure that the culture that we were working towards was one that was relevant to the families of today’s Australia.

Malley: We all need resilience in leadership, but particularly going through complex cultural change. Was there a moment during that process that really did call on that resilience for you and the team?

Morrison: There is nothing more challenging than changing culture, because it’s rooted in human nature, and there are few things more complex on the planet than human nature. You’re trying to see the bigger picture and articulate a vision.

You’re trying to find the language of change that resonates for your workforce. You’re trying to develop effective policies and directives to make change. At the same time, you’re dealing with the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that come your way.

What gave me additional impetus were a couple of crises [the Skype and email scandals] that we didn’t waste. We realised, particularly in 2013, that for all the good work we were doing, we were still having problems, so we chose deliberately to deal with that issue in a very public way. My sense was that we needed to be very open with the Australian public.

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When we did that, there was a particular cut through of people who could be critical of circumstances that had occurred but they could also see a genuine and very transparent commitment to being better. 

I’ve got to say, though, that the real game changer for me at a personal level came when I sat and spoke with three extraordinarily courageous women who had been part of Liz Broderick’s review into the treatment of women in the ADF. Individually, over a six-hour day, they gave me an insight into their world and how they had been traduced and denied the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Lessons for organisations

Malley: Brand is often an extension of an organisation’s culture, and over the years you’ve talked to corporate Australia about brand. What’s the message you give them?

"You can have your mission statements and you can have your strategies, but culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Morrison: If you assume that you’re going to maintain your brand because of your past, then you need to be exceptionally cautious. You can make some fundamental mistakes, and corporate history – as well as military history – is replete with them … organisations that believe their own press that come badly unstuck because they didn’t pay attention to the culture of the organisation.

Australian Army men and women in Townsville, Australia's largest garrison city. Photographer: Jarrod Barnes

I say to the corporate leaders, “You can have vision and you can have your mission statements and you can have your strategies, but culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

If you don’t have a culture that is giving people the confidence to contribute at a personal level and through that reach their potential, then the organisation is not going to reach its potential as well.

Malley: In the process of that cultural change, how did you and the team bring people on that journey and have evidence of them coming on that journey?

Morrison: The first step was largely about setting targets to increase the number of women in the army’s workforce, and there was some great work done by human resources teams and others to set a credible target. Once we took positive action to try to achieve that, it wasn’t about keeping it a secret. We spoke continually to leadership within the army and also more junior levels to give them the logic behind why we were trying to increase the number of women. 

The events of 2013 brought this into even sharper focus for everybody, because we were talking about an incident where clearly army values had been traduced. I describe it as a culminating experience where we were arguing from the heart but also leading from the head.

Malley: What response are you getting from organisations in the community in the areas you’ve chosen to champion as Australian of the Year – diversity, domestic violence and Australia becoming a republic?

Morrison: Overwhelming. I had no notion that I was going to be the Australian of the Year and I can say in all honesty that I thought I was the least likely to be chosen from that august group. I was stunned when my name was read out. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share your views and talk about your principles and where we as a society would look to go next. It is a great gift. 

Overwhelmingly, my work as Australian of the Year has been in the diversity area and on domestic violence. I’ve been able to speak to community organisations or to the not-for-profit sector, even at some corporate events where they are doing it for reasons outside of corporate benefit.

I’m a long-term ambassador of White Ribbon, I’m a board member for Our Watch and I’m now the patron of the Tara Costigan Foundation in the ACT. I’ve seen how lives are blighted as a result of domestic violence, and I think it is one of the great social concerns.

In terms of [Australia becoming a] republic, which did raise a few eyebrows, I have been a republican since my uncle Barry convinced me that that would be the right thing to do in 1971. I didn’t feel that I could join the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) while I was a serving officer. As soon as I finished in the army, I joined the ARM.

Australia can benefit from having, every 20 years or so, a moment of national reflection about our constitutional future, because it’s best for us as a nation if we have our own head of state, that we are a nation that shapes its own destiny. Australia being what Australia is, that will probably be a fairly robust exchange!

“The real game changer for me came when I spoke with three extraordinarily courageous women ...”

Malley: What have you made of the controversy surrounding your selection and the detractors who say you’re a privileged white man advocating for diversity?

Morrison: Well I am! I couldn’t agree more strongly. I’m absolutely a privileged white man. I’m the beneficiary of extraordinary love and support from two highly principled and loving parents in a comfortable middle-class family, a family that gave me a really good education. But that shouldn’t stop me at this stage of life realising that I can continue to make a contribution positively to the society that I feel privileged to be a part of. 

I have been given so many opportunities in life – some of which I’ve squandered terribly – but opportunities in life that I now come to fully understand are denied to far too many Australians. We are a great country, but a hallmark of our great system is we know we can be better and that’s been something that we have seen time and time again.

We should celebrate that, but we should also take heart from the fact that we have a legacy to leave in our own right for those who come after us.


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