Preserving the essential non-partisanship of our defence force during contemporary controversies

Public concern over controversial political statements by serving ADF personnel is best resolved by reinforcing universal adherence to the longstanding principle of defence force non-partisanship. And in emphasing the criticality of personnel avoiding public, and generally private, participation in political or associated controversies. With Australia involved in a UN-endorsed international campaign against terrorism by Islamist extremists - but not of course against Islam as a religion - clearly distinguishing between the responsibilities of the ADF's chaplains and it's "cultural advisers" would be a good first step towards restoring public confidence. A good second step would be to crack down consistently on all sides of politically controversial public exchanges on social-media, and elsewhere, between squabbling defence force personnel. Especially where particularly extreme political views, or religious bigotry, are aired by such personnel and this exacerbates the deterioration of both wider public debate and community confidence in the ADF.


Letter to The Australian 
Tuesday, 05 January 2016
(published Thursday, 07 January 2016)

Readers of Rosie Lewis’s and Cameron Stewart’s article (“Row over Navy’s Islamic account after Tony Abbott retweet”, 5/1) surely reflected on the long-accepted Westminster-system principle that our defence force must always be non-partisan institutionally and needs to be seen as such.

During the international community’s complex conflict with Islamist terrorism, but not Islam, three contextual points need particular emphasis.

First, it is the Australian Defence Force's chaplains, of all religions, who remain solely responsible for providing advice to ADF commanders on theological and associated pastoral matters, and spiritual support (where sought) to personnel generally.

For over a century the principles and procedures concerned have been well-tested in maintaining the necessary balance between ADF capability collectively and religious freedom individually.

Where personal religious beliefs are strongly held, or involve customs that affect daily schedules or diets, we have the successful example of Orthodox Jewish chaplains arranging individual and collective compromises between unavoidable military requirements and dietary or other observances.

Second, in appointing a Navy “Islamic culture” adviser, however, there appears to have been insufficient definition of where cultural advice stops and chaplaincy expertise and responsibilities apply.

Particularly as the ADF now has a reservist Islamic chaplain.

Some of this confusion may have inadvertently resulted from the role of indigenous cultural advisers where, in the absence of clergy in indigenous belief systems, they have occasionally also advised the ADF about respecting some spiritual practices during inter-actions with specific communities.

Finally, public concern naturally arises — as it does across our defence force — when statements attributed to ADF sources result in political or related controversy.

Considerable public confusion about the necessary distinction between Islamism as a bigoted politico-religious movement — and mainstream Islam as a religion — surely means that ADF comment on specifically religious complexities is best left to it’s chaplains, not to cultural advisers.

All ADF personnel may also need reminding that holding personal political or religious beliefs does not mean they can ever misuse the force’s reputation, their ADF status or it’s resources to pursue such individual quests.

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