Submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Si Gladman / 02 June 2022

This is our submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.  Members of the public and organisations have until Friday 13 October, 2023, to make submissions to the royal commission.

The Rationalist Society of Australia believes the current Australian Defence Force (ADF) wellbeing and pastoral care model is failing Australia’s service personnel and having a negative effect on mental health outcomes among personnel while in service and after they have left.

The religious-based pastoral care and wellbeing model fulfills a front-line role in the sense that chaplains are embedded with ADF personnel, in ships and units, on a daily basis. This model remains almost exclusively religious, and predominantly Christian.

With ADF personnel rapidly becoming non-religious, according to data from the Defence Census, the religious-based nature of pastoral care puts up barriers to service personnel seeking and accessing the care they need at the time they need it. As a result, it hampers the ability of the ADF to provide early identification of at-risk members, intervention, support and referral.

The current model is no longer fit for purpose. In fact, it increases the risk of adverse mental health outcomes for ADF personnel. 

In this submission, we address some of the major problems with the current religious-based model of pastoral care and recommend a way forward.

Religious chaplains are anachronistic to an increasingly secular ADF

The demographic of ADF personnel is becoming increasingly non-religious, making religious-based chaplaincy anachronist and increasingly irrelevant to service personnel. The Defence Census of 2019 showed that the number of ADF personnel having no religious affiliation has grown rapidly from 37% in 2011 to 57% in 2019. This trend is only expected to continue.

We know that non-religious ADF personnel are reluctant to seek religious-based support. In evidence given to the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) in early 2020, then Commander Shore Force Captain S Bowater OAM RAN said: “….in the absence of a neutral member to fulfill the pastoral and wellbeing role currently provided by Navy’s Chaplain, some people would not seek their help and may be troubled and unable to focus on their roles and responsibilities as we need them to do.” 

This phenomenon is evident in the broader community. A Dynata survey of 1,000 Australians in 2020, commissioned by Humanist Victoria and the Humanist Society of ACT, found that only 22 per cent of non-religious people would be likely to seek support from religious chaplains. But 49 per cent said they would be likely to seek pastoral support from a non-religious pastoral support provider.

Religious qualifications are inadequate for the modern ADF

To be appointed as a chaplain in the ADF, a person must have a theological degree, at least two years of pastoral experience and be ordained by their denomination or faith group equivalent.

In evidence given to the DFRT in early 2020, Navy’s own Director General of Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain Collin Acton said theological degrees did little to prepare religious chaplains for provision of the sort of pastoral care required in the modern ADF.

The Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) noted that the ADF’s ‘Chaplaincy Reporting Tool’, used to monitor the type of work chaplains perform, showed that about 95 per cent of chaplains’ time was spent on non-religious pastoral care and wellbeing support.

Principal Chaplain Acton told the DFRT that the pastoral care role had dramatically changed in recent times. He said: “…the types of pastoral care we regularly deal with include issues such as relationship breakdown, family and domestic violence, anxiety/depression, suicide ideation and the wider complexities around members having trouble at work, finding it difficult making friends in a new posting location, being lonely or finding life challenging.” As such, he noted: “…there is little in a theological degree that prepares a chaplain for the practical pastoral and mental health related issues.”

Problematic religious views have no place in the ADF

The religious-based worldviews of chaplains, who are ordained and trained in church communities, are often out of step with the culture the ADF is trying to develop – a culture recognising diversity and promoting inclusivity.

Many traditional religious views – for example, considering same-sex relationships, sexual relationships outside marriage and divorce to be sinful – are rejected by most Australians and, indeed, by most mainstream religious people. They have no place in the modern ADF.

Such problematic religious doctrines also make it more unlikely that young service personnel will want to seek religious-based support from religious chaplains when it comes to the wide range of issues they are dealing with on a daily basis. Such issues may include female reproductive rights, same-sex relationships, non-binary gender matters and voluntary assisted dying matters involving familiy members. 

Our recommendation

Given the rapidly changing religious affiliation demographic within the ADF, it does not make sense for the ADF to continue its reliance on the religious-based model of pastoral and wellbeing support. 

We welcome the forward-looking actions of Navy when they introduced, in 2020, a secular chaplaincy option through the new Maritime Spiritual Welfare Officer roles. As was made clear in the ruling of the DFRT, this innovation was driven by an increasing awareness that religious chaplains could not provide the appropriate support needed.

While Navy has taken the initiative on this matter, Army and Air Force have failed to do so. By not acting, they are failing to support their own people. 

The pastoral care and wellbeing function within the ADF as a whole needs to transition to a secular welfare model that includes suitably qualified and professionally trained secular welfare and social workers, counsellors and other human service professionals.

For a new secular welfare model to be effective, such professionals need to be working alongside personnel – in the same way that religious chaplains currently do – on a daily basis. These professionals need to be wearing the same uniform as personnel, be working alongside personnel in units and ships, be deploying with them and, generally, be sharing the same conditions of service as the people they care for.

Civilian social workers in the Defence Community Organisation do a great job. However, military personnel may regard them as not having the same lived experience.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As former Principal Chaplain Acton said last year: “The mental health and wellbeing of ADF personnel are critical to capability.” It’s now time for the ADF to provide the pastoral care and wellbeing support our serving men and women need and deserve, and the wider Australian community expects.

All the more reason.