David Morrison comes across as the quintessential army general. A withering glare that feels it could cut through steel, a face that doesn’t naturally fall to a smile, a posture that seems unnaturally straight and the close-cropped hair of most servicemen, Morrison himself admits he has been described as ‘overly stern’ and an ’authoritarian’.
Appearances can be deceptive.
Morrison is now known – internationally – for his compassionate fight for inclusion, particularly with regards to women in the armed forces, thanks in part to a viral YouTube video made in 2014 where he emphatically stated the Australian army was no place for men who did not agree, telling them to ‘get out’.
“Well, clearly I am white. Male. And I’m Anglo-Saxon,” he says about his own cultural identity.
“I’m now at a point in my life where I understand that I have had, as result of my heritage, and my gender, and indeed my sexual orientation (which is heterosexual), opportunities that have been provided for me in my life, that haven’t been provided to people who don’t fit that stereotype.
“Having seen those issues, I can’t unseen them. I hear voices now, of people whose hurdles that they’ve jumped have been higher than mine - and I don’t want to un-hear them. I think we’ve all got a role to play, in ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to reach their potential.
Morrison explains the complex issues of diversity and inclusion weren’t something he wasn’t immediately aware of.
“I have never been discriminated against, in my life,” he says. “But I know now, just how prevalent discrimination is, on the most peripheral of criteria. Someone’s beliefs. Someone’s skin colour. Someone’s sexual orientation. It holds them back, and as a result, it holds all of us back.”
Morrison began taking bold steps to changing the army’s culture, thanks in part to Elizabeth Broderick (Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner) who highlighted some of the worst cases of abuse in the army. He said the first steps were listening to some of the women who were subject to the abuse.
“[You can create a more tolerant, inclusive community] by listening. And seeing. And putting time into taking other people’s perspectives as you start to view your problems and your issues,” says Morrison.
“Often, I think you find, certainly in my case I can say this, the issues and challenges and problems you face are small in comparison. They change the way you think. And they make you a more inclusive person. Someone who actually goes looking for the diversity in our lives and celebrating it as a result.”
Morrison’s work offers an unparalleled example to other organisations on how to commit to creating a culturally diverse and inclusive environment.
“Diversity is often just a box-ticking exercise,” Morrison laments. “What the real difference is, is inclusivity.”
“I’ve got no anthropological training. So I can’t give you a qualified definition of what ‘culture’ is,” he admits. “But I reckon, culture is the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves.
“So what’s the story you tell yourself, about yourself? As a family member? As a member of a profession or a sporting team? Or part of the Canberra community? If the stories are inclusive, if they celebrate diversity, if they are about making our community and through our community the nation a better place, then you are telling yourself the right story.
“But if your stories are exclusive, if they confirm in your mind that you have a positive discrimination biased to the people who look like you, or sound like you, or believe like you, I think you’re probably shutting of parts of your life and maybe it’s time you stopped and thought about the culture that encapsulates you. Maybe ask yourself whether you need to be involved in changing that culture in a positive way.
“No man or woman is an island,” he says. “We’re all social creatures. We all live within society. I think if you take that as your starting point, the most important thing you can do is engage with open ears, and open eyes, with a keen mind to understand the differences between us all, but then celebrating those differences because when we use the potential that is on offer in everybody, everybody benefits.”