The Rationalist Society of Australia has queried the new Defence ministers on how they will ensure that Army and Air Force follow the lead of the Navy in introducing non-religious wellbeing support officers.
In a letter to Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Personnel and Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh early this month, the RSA urged the new Labor government to take swift action on the issue.
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig told the ministers that the Army’s and the Air Force’s reliance on religious clergy to provide frontline wellbeing support to a largely non-religious workforce “puts up barriers” to personnel accessing appropriate care.
“Earlier this year, we told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that the chaplaincy wellbeing model puts up barriers to many personnel seeking and accessing the care they need at the time they need it,” she said.
“Although the majority of ADF personnel – more than 60 per cent overall and about 80 per cent of new recruits – are not religious, the Army and Air Force employ clergy to deliver frontline wellbeing capability.
“The RSA is deeply concerned that the ADF’s religious-based wellbeing and pastoral care model is failing service men and women and negatively affecting mental health outcomes.”
Dr Doig pointed to the testimony of former head of Navy chaplaincy, Collin Acton, that many ADF personnel feel discomfort about the idea of seeking wellbeing support from religious chaplains.
Dr Doig noted that many of the reasons for such discomfort were cited in 2020 at the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) decision to establish secular wellbeing support roles in Navy to improve support for non-religious personnel.
“As Retired Principal Chaplain Acton says, if we were building the ADF from scratch today, we would not employ a staff of clergy – overwhelming Christians – to service the wellbeing needs of a largely non-religious workforce,” said Dr Doig.
“What steps will your government take to ensure that the Army and Air Force follow the lead of the Navy in introducing non-religious wellbeing support officers?”
Dr Doig also raised concerns about the previous government’s decision earlier this year to extend religious chaplaincy to veterans through a pilot program under the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“While we welcome extra support for Defence veterans, we urge the government to ensure that any wellbeing pilot program within the DVA is a modern wellbeing capability, with access to secular pastoral care.”
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photos: Richard Marles MP (Facebook) and Matt Keogh (Facebook)