Our men and women in uniform aren’t campaign props, Prime Minister

by on 9 July, 2010

Terry-Barnes Australia's defence forces should not be used for political purposes, writes Terry Barnes.

As Julia Gillard’s East Timor solution unravels, it’s instructive to reflect on how the new Prime Minister sought to portray herself as she sought to flog her “Timor Solution”.
The day after her now highly controversial Lowy Institute speech, Ms Gillard took herself and her entourage (more of that in a moment) to Darwin, where she boarded patrol boat HMAS Broome (incidentally commanded by a very telegenic Lisa McCune-lookalike young female officer) to highlight the other side of the boat people equation – naval border patrol.  It was a beautiful day, cloudless sky, deep blue sea and the PM on the bridge, apparently in charge of the operation with the young lieutenant by her side.

It made for great television pictures and still photos (well, perhaps except for the one on the front page of the NT News showing the PM with right arm extended in what looked like a Nazi salute).  Julia’s looking after us, protecting Australia from the riff-raff, was the subliminal message – even as elsewhere yet another boat was intercepted.
All fair enough.  The Prime Minister visiting a Royal Australian Navy vessel and seeing our taxpayers’ dollars at work.  Can’t really complain I suppose, even if we grumble about the cost of getting her there and putting HMAS Broome to sea just for a media opportunity – even if the PM is trying to strike a pose as the ruler of the Queen’s Navee.
It’s only when we look at her entourage that it starts to stink.  Behind her aboard the HMAS Broome was the local Labor MP, Damien Hale – who incidentally sits on a wafer-thin margin.  Then again, it’s his electorate and the crew are technically his constituents. Fair enough.  But the other bloke that featured prominently, conveniently attired in a stand-out white shirt, was the Member for Lindsay, David Bradbury.
Lindsay? I hear you ask.  Yes, the seat of Lindsay.  In landlocked Western Sydney 1,500 miles away.  Which includes the State seat of Penrith where Labor was effectively wiped out a fortnight ago.  Where the handling of asylum-seekers is a hot-button issue.  Where the PM is desperate to show she is tougher than tough on boat people.  What else could Mr Bradbury be there for?  He has no ministerial responsibilities, he is not a member of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, nor does he have any direct connection with Northern Australia as far as I know, unless he’s holidayed there.  For him it was a freebie pleasure cruise to take in the sea air.
The only other reason Mr Bradbury was there was to dog whistle to his electorate, by way of the evening television news, that Labor is trying to show that it can be tougher on boat people than that nasty Mr Abbott.
In short this was not a legitimate Prime Ministerial visit; it was an electorally cunning stunt.  A stunt that made serving defence force personnel mere props on a political stage.
Politics is one thing, but the exploitation for base political purposes of the Broome’s crew, and the Navy more generally, is reprehensible.  Our defence forces – who serve in the name of Queen and country – should be above politics.  Our leaders should visit men and women in the field, but to encourage and support them on our behalf, not to exploit them.  While it could be said that any political leader’s visit to the forces – say in Afghanistan – inevitably is political, this particular event was to narrow-cast a particular ALP electoral message to a particular segment of the electorate.  To me, that’s wrong.
In the election campaign that’s about to begin, there will be lots and lots of picture opportunities and media events.  If people and organisations choose to be involved in them, so be it, that’s politics.  But our defence forces, who all the way to the Chief of the Defence Force serve under the orders of their superiors and have no right of opting out of such events, should be left alone to do their job.  A job, it should be said, that they do with great professionalism and at great risk.  They are to be respected, admired and supported, and they should never be exploited for base political purposes in stunts like the Prime Minister’s.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott should take a lead and promise that he won’t use the defence force in the same way in the election campaign or as Prime Minister.  It would only gather him more respect, and incidentally keep the tone of the asylum-seeker debate higher.
In the meantime, though, perhaps the ALP should write a cheque to cover the day’s operation of HMAS Broome, and the cost of bringing the PM and her political and media entourage along.  Taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for this brazen and exploitative act of electioneering.

Terry Barnes is an editor of Menzies House.

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