When Peter Reith was on the opposition backbench in 1993, he aired the story of a constituent who, while a reservist serving as a doctor on a naval vessel, had been subjected to horrendous harassment.
The ''ship of shame'' turned into a big story, leading to an independent inquiry. Reith says that when he became defence minister years later, he was told some senior military officers were unhappy at his appointment because he'd triggered that inquiry.
The one-time minister remains deeply sceptical of the military's ability to get the message about sexism. ''Their immediate response to an incident is to devise a process for handling the issue - saying 'we have a report coming' or 'we will get the coppers in'. They don't confront the cultural issue and fix it.'' The military have their ethics lessons, he says, but they don't learn them.
In the latest incident, Kate, an 18-year-old first-year cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy, had consensual sex with a fellow cadet who, without her knowledge, skyped their intercourse for the titillation of mates in another room. The girl later went to the media with the story. This low-level incident (which is not to play down its intrinsic importance) has blown into a huge issue dominating two days of Defence Minister Stephen Smith's public attention, putting Defence Chief Angus Houston on the spot, and leaving a cloud over the future of ADFA's commanding officer Bruce Kafer, in whom Smith has so far declined to express confidence.
Smith has cracked down on the military with a ferocity seldom seen from this mild-mannered minister. He's declaring loudly and firmly that enough is enough.
The subtext is that he is reflecting his wider frustration with the defence establishment, whose ''culture'' is poor across a broader front than simply gender issues.
Asked yesterday about asserting control, when the defence job had cost previous ministerial careers, Smith said a judgment he now had to make ''is whether there's a need to do more in terms of general or systemic issues. That's now a very serious matter that I need to contemplate.''
Houston says the military took the skyping scandal extremely seriously from the start.
Surely a commonsense response to a group of youths behaving badly, however, would have been for ADFA to quickly establish the key facts and discipline those involved. Instead, the whole thing was turned into a muddle. ADFA reportedly referred the matter to the police, who apparently initially identified no offence; they were later asked to look again and are investigating. ADFA suspended its own inquiry while that was happening. But wasn't the disciplinary breach involved in skyping clear enough to act on, leaving the law to take its own course?
The military authorities also went ahead with dealing with a separate incident - Kate going AWOL and drinking - in the midst of the publicity about the skyping, when she was under maximum emotional pressure.
This blunder saw Smith incandescent, even to saying the conviction in relation to the separate incident should be quashed, a very unusual (and questionable) intervention by a minister in the military discipline system.
Obviously, such a traducing of a person's right is something on which the public expects a strong stand from the minister.
But also, this is just the latest of a string of incidents involving the military's failure to ensure basic standards of conduct. For all the blathering from the brass, the pattern is there. Only recently an inquiry found that a ''tribal'' group of senior sailors on HMAS Success engaged in predatory sexual and drunken misconduct in 2009.
History doesn't suggest Smith's tough stance will have a transformative impact. Indeed there is some blow-back: the Australia Defence Association's Neil James said it was ''sad'' that we'd reached the stage of Smith commenting on matters down the chain of command. Senior military sources were angry the minister was reflecting on Kafer.
Both Liberal and Labor ministers have found the defence establishment generally, including the department and the military, incompetent and unresponsive on a range of matters.
Ask Brendan Nelson, who had to handle the fallout from the death in Iraq of Jake Kovco, killed in his own room by his own weapon, which he shouldn't have had there loaded. An inquest found his death was ''irresponsibly self-inflicted''. Initially Nelson was given a poor briefing by the military (though he was also at fault by going public quickly with inadequate information). Later the military shipped the wrong body home. Notably, in the ADFA case - where establishing the facts quickly was much easier - Smith has been frustrated by the difficulty he's had getting timely and accurate information. On an entirely different plane, but part of Smith's general anger with the defence establishment, is the recent disclosure that two amphibious ships, HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Manoora, had turned into unseathworthy rust buckets, apparently without anyone noticing enough to prevent it. Releasing advice from Houston and Defence department secretary Ian Watt in February, Smith said it identified ''systematic and cultural problems in the maintenance of our amphibious ship fleet over a decade or more. It outlines the adverse side effects of a 'can do' and 'make do' culture . . .''
Then there is the notoriously lax approach to spending in Defence that has been the bane of a string of finance ministers. Watt was previously head of the finance department, so should at least be in a better position to crack down on waste, but the department has a history of recidivism.
Why is the defence establishment, especially the military, so hard to bring to heel? There are multiple reasons. But much of the problem lies in attitude: a failure to understand and accept proper accountability, whether it's dealing with personal rights, public money and equipment, or keeping ministers properly informed. Smith's approach to the case of Kate may have been heavy-handed but he has given the military a not-undeserved shaking that it should read as a wider lesson.
Michelle Grattan is The Age's political editor.