Visiting the troops deployed overseas has been a tradition for Australian politicians at least as far back as June 1916, when Billy Hughes travelled to the Western Front and met soldiers shortly before the appalling battles of Fromelle and Pozires. It is remarkable that so much of Australia’s political culture has been shaped by the interaction of politicians with the military. In Canberra, Parliament House and the War Memorial face each other across the lake, both institutions dug-in to the hills around them, reminding us of the cost of political decisions to go to war.
Strategy may start with ideas about alliances, Anglospheres and Asian Centuries, but such planning is made reality by soldiers carrying guns in remote locations. So it’s utterly appropriate, in fact deeply necessary, that politicians should visit the troops overseas, look our deployed military and civilian personnel in the eye, and seek to understand what it really takes to promote Australian strategic interests abroad.
What a pity then that so many visits of senior politicians take on the same character of the media performances we see from all sides of politics every night on the evening news. Be it visits to kindergartens, schools, factories, building sites or malls, the purpose of these visits are identical: to provide a congenial back drop for announcements and the opportunity to film politicians interacting with ‘normal’ Australians. With Defence personnel there’s the added attraction of being surrounded by people from one of the most trusted professions in the country. The ADF ranks 12th in a recent Reader’s Digest poll on ‘professions we trust’, while politicians ranked 49th out of 50.
While the positive media payoff of photo-opportunities with the troops is assumed to be high, the penalties of getting the look wrong can also be substantial. Indeed striking the right tone becomes a critical political challenge when engaging with soldiers. John Howard’s rather wayward bowling action during a visit to the troops in Pakistan in November 2005 will long be remembered and replayed by Howard detractors, even though the reason for his visit—to meet troops involved in a major flood relief operation—has been forgotten. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the Falkland Islands in 1983 produced one of the most iconic images of the Iron Lady’s Prime Ministership—all goggles and gritty determination.
In his previous Prime Ministership, Kevin Rudd made a number of visits to Australian troops based in Tarin Kowt, Southern Afghanistan. He visited in December 2008 for some two and half hours to wish Australian troops a merry Christmas. It was a freezing winter and, bizarrely, he handed over a cricket kit and delivered an expletive-filled pep talk to some rather stunned soldiers describing the region ‘as ‘a hell hole’ and a ‘Godforsaken place’ with ‘shitty weather’. Tony Abbott also received criticism as a result of a comment caught on-camera during an October 2010 visit to the troops in Afghanistan. As described by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Philip Coorey:
Tony Abbott’s ‘shit happens’—in response to being told in Afghanistan in October that Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney’s death in August was not due to any single factor—was just another example of a political leader resorting to bloke talk when in a war zone.
Not so much one for bloke talk, it was striking that Julia Gillard gave so much emphasis to her interaction with military personnel in her speech after losing the Prime Ministership on 26 June this year:
One of the things that has most delighted me as Prime Minister and before that as Deputy Prime Minister has been getting to know our Defence Force personnel. I can’t claim that I came out of opposition with any great experience in Defence or any great exposure to Australian Defence Force personnel. Now I have had both experience in Defence and that exposure. And whilst there are issues to address in our Defence Force about the treatment of women, overwhelmingly, the men and women of our ADF are great Australians and getting to know them has been a real privilege.
I have, either as Prime Minister or as acting Prime Minister attended 24 funerals for soldiers lost in Afghanistan. I am very aware of the courage and the sacrifice and part of being Prime Minister has been being there for those families in their darkest moments.
For Gillard, as indeed for many in Parliament, it’s been the deaths of Australian military personnel and the interactions with their families which have been the defining moments of political engagement with defence over the last few years. Appropriately, those moments have been mostly off camera.
Mr Rudd’s most recent visit to Tarin Kowt has received coverage most prominently because he was accompanied by his wife, Ms Therese Rein. There are obvious security concerns inherent in bringing spouses into combat zones, but Ms Rein’s visit isn’t unique: Prime Minister John Gorton’s wife Bettina accompanied him to Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam for a five hour visit in June 1968. Wars may change but politics is immutable.
If there’s is any lesson to be drawn from these encounters, it’s surely that politicians and military personnel should engage each other with a respect due to each profession and a willingness not to engage in too many pre-cooked photo opportunities. It’s vital that our Government leaders walk the ground of deployed operations, but not in ways that turn troops into props for media consumption back home.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress.