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.