RSA calls for apology over Defence’s treatment of secular reformer

Si Gladman / 25 October 2023

The Rationalist Society of Australia has asked the federal government and the Australian Defence Force to unreservedly apologise to Collin Acton for the unfair treatment that ended his distinguished Navy career.

In a letter to Defence minister Richard Marles and Defence Personnel minister Matt Keogh last week, RSA president Meredith Doig detailed the evidence showing how religious interests within Defence had forced Mr Acton (pictured) out of Navy for his public advocacy of secular reform to religious-based pastoral care capability.

Dr Doig pointed to the role of the taxpayer-funded Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) in wanting Mr Acton removed from his Defence role and in making accusations about him to the Chief of Defence Force.

Messages of support have flooded in for Mr Acton from Defence personnel since the RSA revealed earlier this month that a high-level investigation had exonerated the former head of Navy chaplaincy

Former Chief of Navy Mick Noonan – who was in charge when Navy introduced its secular wellbeing roles in 2020 – has been among a number of Defence personnel expressing support for Mr Acton on LinkedIn.

In response, Mr Acton published a post expressing “heartfelt gratitude for the overwhelming support and encouragement” that he had received during his ordeal. He wrote:

Dear friends,

I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude for the overwhelming support and encouragement you have extended to me during the challenging RACS ordeal. The entire situation has been exceptionally difficult, and I earnestly hope that a shift towards positive change, benefiting all members of the ADF, will become the primary concern of our senior defence leaders.

On LinkedIn, Vice Admiral Noonan described Mr Acton as “a man of honour” who had the “courage of his conviction to pursue change for Defence People”.

Although the investigation found there was “no evidence to suggest any contravention of Defence policy or unprofessional conduct”, Navy Headquarters made it clear to Mr Acton last year that he would have to leave behind his career of 35 years if he wanted to continue advocating for secular reform.

“Within the space of a few years, Mr Acton had received an OAM, overseen the introduction of minority-faith representation in the chaplaincy branch and spearheaded the most important reform to the Navy’s wellbeing and pastoral care capability in decades – the introduction of MSWOs – to ensure that Navy could effectively meet the needs of its majority non-religious workforce,” Dr Doig wrote in her letter.

“We call on the Australian government and the Australian Defence Force to unreservedly apologise to Mr Acton and commend him for his service to our country and his advocacy of much-needed secular reform that is now having a positive impact on the wellbeing of Navy personnel.”

Dr Doig also urged the ministers to pursue reform of RACS to, at least, ensure non-religious personnel had representation on the committee.

She detailed how RACS had used its privileged position – with direct access to Defence leadership and its oversight of the chaplaincy capability across Army, Navy and Air Force – to obstruct secular reform, force out reforming elements and entrench religious chaplaincy in Defence.

“RACS is, effectively, a taxpayer-funded religious lobby within Defence, doing the bidding of religious interests. Yet, it does not even represent most personnel serving across the Army, Navy and Air Force,” she wrote.

“The majority of Defence personnel identify as not religious… Defence’s majority non-religious workforce does not have any representation on RACS or on an equivalent committee.

“With no such representative body advocating for the needs and views of non-religious voices when it comes to issues such as the wellbeing and pastoral care support that they want, (former Army Colonel and Defence statistician Phillip) Hoglin has warned that this ‘large and emerging demographic will be under-represented in relevant forums’ and excluded from important debates.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Image: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia

All the more reason.