With friends like #ScottyFromCarpeting the ADF and veterans can clearly do better
By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
The now infamous photo of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s red-carpet turn at RAAF Base Williamtown was so ludicrous that speculation was rife on social media that the image must have been photoshopped. It wasn’t. It was real.
The photo, originally posted on Morrison’s Instagram account on May 7, was so widely ridiculed that this week RMIT ABC Fact Check was moved to pose the question: “Why did Scott Morrison get red-carpet treatment on airbase visit when previous prime ministers didn't?”
Even by the cringeworthy standards of Morrison’s relentless stream of self-aggrandising photo ops this one was too much to bear for many Australians, especially veterans.
'In 40 years in the Australian Defence Force, with eight Prime Ministers during that time, [I] never saw one receive a red carpet and an honour guard for an internal visit to a base. Until now,” tweeted retired colonel Ray Martin.
The photo of Morrison strutting down a red carpet, having alighted from his plane at RAAF Base Williamtown, north of Newcastle in the NSW Hunter region, flanked by an armed, standing-at-attention, flag-toting “Ceremonial Stairway Guard”, was widely panned as “un-Australian”. The only happy side to this PR stunt gone horribly wrong was the inspired and frequently hilarious #ScottyFromCarpeting mockery on Twitter.
But even if this jingoistic spectacle offended Australians’ egalitarian sensibilities, was Morrison entitled to the VIP welcome?
No, says Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association and a 31-year Army veteran. The red-carpet treatment, he argues, is reserved for dignitaries such as the Governor-General, a visiting head of state or the monarch.
"It doesn't matter whether you're visiting a ship, an army base or an airforce base, this just doesn't happen," James told the ABC.
"Generally speaking, a visit by a minister, including the prime minister, is not a VIP visit."
Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull agree that they were not afforded such grand welcomes at an Australian military base during their time in office.
‘Not a good look’
“I don’t recall ever being received by a ceremonial guard like that with flags. It wasn’t a good look,” Turnbull told The New Daily. “We play down the pomp and ceremony as a rule.”
Prime ministers – including Rudd and Turnbull – using ADF members and defence equipment as photo props is disagreeable but not unusual.
But Morrison’s red-carpet, flag-festooned extravaganza would have tested the tolerance of even his most forgiving supporters.
Not for the first time with this tin-eared prime minister the question to be asked is: ‘What was he thinking?’
The pomposity of Morrison’s militaristic red-carpet moment can in part be explained by his Boy’s Own veneration of Australia’s armed forces. Because everything is a marketing opportunity for Morrison the Williamtown RAAF photo op was no doubt intended to convey that he loves, and is loved by, the Australian Defence Force.
We know that Morrison has a considerable estimation of his abilities as a marketing man. Every image that he concocts of himself for public consumption has an objective: to portray himself variously as a suburban dad, man of the people, wag, man of faith, women’s champion, sports enthusiast, statesman, speedo-wearing beach hunk (chalk up another one for ‘what was he thinking?’)…the list goes embarrassingly on.
Yes, such self-promotion has become the nature of modern politics, but no prime minister has been so overt, relentless or brazen in his attempts to impose his “brand” on the public consciousness. It is difficult to bring to mind a more narcissistic prime minister.
Morrison’s red-carpet stunt will possibly go down as his “jump the shark” moment, although with this prime minister who can say?
It’s interesting to speculate how Morrison saw himself in his mind’s eye as he stepped on to that ceremonial red carpet flanked by the RAAF’s finest presenting arms, the Australian flag and RAAF ensign held aloft and fluttering majestically in the breeze. All very stirring and no doubt appealing to the prime minister’s vanity.
Absurd and egregious
It is one thing to shake our heads at this latest example of Morrison’s misplaced faith in his abilities as a marketing man, but there is the more serious matter of the prime minister’s judgement – again, not for the first time.
Morrison, who likes to portray himself as the quintessential Aussie, has misread Australians’ expectations of how their leaders should conduct themselves in public. We don’t go in for grand motorcades and ostentatious security entourages and red carpets are strictly for Brownlow Medal counts, the Logies and, at a pinch, royal visits.
The use of a military ceremonial guard at the Williamtown airbase was both absurd – Morrison was visiting to announce funding to upgrade the runway at the adjacent Newcastle Airport for goodness’ sake – and egregious.
Given that the ceremonial welcome was not an observance of protocol it can only be concluded that it was a contrived photo opportunity into which members of the ADF were dragooned.
Nothing in a prime minister’s travel itinerary is left to chance. If the Prime Minister’s Office did not expressly organise the red carpet welcome – a matter on which it has declined to shed any light – it would have been fully aware that one was planned. Even Morrison’s hero, the equally hawkish John Howard, would have baulked at the spectacle of a military honour guard. Howard, unlike Morrison, had a finely tuned awareness of public sentiment.
Quite apart from foolishly exposing himself to ridicule, Morrison, never one to feel constrained by convention, deliberately compromised the political neutrality of the ADF.
"One of the key points about the Defence Force is that you don't bring the Defence Force into political controversy," Neil James told the ABC.
"It's not just the military that has to be neutral politically, it's that politicians have to do nothing that undermines the public's confidence that the military is apolitical. Surely someone in the Prime Minister's Office should have looked at it [the Instagram post] and said ‘this will embarrass the political neutrality of the Defence Force, we shouldn't use this'."
You would think, but from what we know of the PMO, which like its boss is both amateurish and without scruple, it is unlikely that the question ever arose.
The red-carpet fiasco might have been laughed off as a piece of nitwit theatre, another mindless Morrison photo op, except that on this occasion the stakes are much higher.
The use of the ADF as a political prop is never acceptable but, as comically hamfisted as the Williamtown ceremonial guard was, it was no less calculated, cynical and unconscionable.
Scott Morrison may consider himself a great friend of the ADF and the veteran community, but on this occasion he has flagrantly abused that friendship.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.