The federal Coalition government has been so hamfisted in its determination to be seen as the veterans’ natural ally that all it has succeeded in doing is to make itself look foolish while in the process trivialising what it means to be a veteran.
Veterans know that Australians value their armed forces. They know this because of the strong community support for Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. But neither veterans nor the general Australian public want to see saccharine American-style veneration of those who have served.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, famous for his tin ear, has been especially keen to introduce such jingoistic tokenism and has proven himself out of step with veteran and popular sentiment.
Since becoming PM in 2018 he has made a point of thanking veterans for their service in his speeches. He has sought to give his acknowledgement of veterans equal standing with the “acknowledgement of country” that formally recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land owners.
In the absence of any formal announcement or public statement on the practice he was asked by The Australian last year to explain his thinking on the matter. This was Morrison’s response:
“Since I became Prime Minister, I’ve regularly made a point of thanking veterans for their service at the beginning of my speeches because they’ve served our country with distinction. We rightly acknowledge our first Australian traditional owners and I have always felt in this spirit we also acknowledge those for whom we owe the greatest debt: to be able to live in the best country in the world and enjoy the freedoms they paid for.”
There is no logical connection between the two acknowledgements; if we add veterans to the acknowledgement of country, why not first responders, healthcare workers or teachers?
Veterans did not ask to be acknowledged every time the PM or one of his ministers speaks in public, nor did Morrison consult with the veteran community about his patriotic gesture. One reason he has chosen to introduce his acknowledgement to veterans by stealth may be that the prime minister does not have a happy record when it comes to securing veteran endorsement of his cringeworthy jingoism.
‘This is not an Australian tradition’
There is, for example, his crass habit of placing his hand on his heart at wreath-laying ceremonies, aping the American custom. This is an infuriating extravagance for those who understand that this is not an Australian tradition, nor are such overwrought demonstrations considered necessary to signify respect for our fallen service men and women.
On this, the RSL, in its ceremonial and commemorative protocols and procedures, is clear:
“The practice of placing the right arm over the heart when laying wreaths or when The National Anthem, The Ode and/or The Last Post is not an Australian tradition. The correct paying of respects after laying a wreath is to step back one or two paces, stand fast with hands by the side and head bowed for 3 to 5 seconds before moving off.”
If Morrison has received advice to this effect he has clearly chosen to ignore it, as did Malcolm Turnbull before him and, as best this writer can determine, so did Tony Abbott.
The intention of Morrison and his predecessors may be to leave no doubt about their patriotism, even if each time the gesture provokes a social-media storm of indignant protests.
The protests were even more charged when late in 2018 Virgin Australia – in response to Scott Morrison’s Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant and his “thank you for your service” campaign – proposed offering veterans priority boarding (upon identifying themselves) and special in-flight announcements alerting passengers to the veterans’ presence. Presumably the passengers would then break into grateful and heart-felt applause.
Not surprisingly, Virgin’s ridiculous proposal was roundly mocked and criticised by veterans as “faux American bollocks”, “trite and embarrassing” and “tokenism”.
Virgin quickly read the mood and walked back its foolish proposal.
Not so Scott Morrison and his precious covenant. The Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant “encourages the Australian community to acknowledge the unique nature of military service and support veterans and their families”.
“Underpinning” the covenant is a Veteran Card, a lapel pin and a new oath.
The lapel pins “provide the opportunity for Australians to identify veterans when they are not in uniform or wearing their medals and offer respect to them and their family”. These are fantasies that possibly looked wonderful on white boards but bear no reality to the Australian character or veterans’ humility and aversion to fuss.
The new oath is at least brief
The oath is described as “an additional commitment of respect to Australia's veterans and may be recited at special community commemorative events”. The oath is a superfluous contrivance that does not even have the redeeming feature of soaring poetry and stirring ritual. It is a composition so pedestrian that history may well show that Morrison penned it himself on the back of an envelope on the way to the event at which the ode was launched.
The oath does have one thing going for it: it is at least brief:
"We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all who have served in our defence force and their families.
"We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.
"We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.
"For what they have done, this we will do."
“Not much we will do” is more like it.
Among the “exclusive offers” available to holders of the Veteran Card is 10% off at Mr Minit, 5% off fuel at select Caltex stations and 5% off Woolworths’ eGift Card. Such offers no doubt make serving in Vietnam or Afghanistan worthwhile.
The Covenant is a standard marketing exercise more suited to club memberships or coupon offers on the back of Woolies receipts. (No wonder it appeals to former marketing man Scott Morrison.) It demeans the very word “veteran”.
Veterans are not hankering for priority boarding or discounts on their next set of keys, nor do they expect grateful citizens to line the streets in thanks every time they step outside their homes.
What they expect of a “grateful nation” is not marketing spin but real assistance when it is needed.
A Productivity Commission report last year, A Better Way to Support Veterans, makes the case for change.
“Despite some recent improvements to the veterans’ compensation and rehabilitation system, it is not fit-for-purpose — it requires fundamental reform. It is out-of-date and is not working in the best interest of veterans and their families or the Australian community,” the report says.
“The system fails to focus on the lifetime wellbeing of veterans. It is overly complex (legislatively and administratively), difficult to navigate, inequitable, and it is poorly administered (which places unwarranted stress on claimants). Some supports are not wellness-focused, some are not well targeted and others are archaic, dating back to the 1920s.”
There is much for a grateful nation to do for our veterans and Scott Morrison’s Covenant doesn’t come close.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne-based journalist and commentator. Twitter: @DAngeloFisher
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