A red-carpet reception rolled out for Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a recent visit to an Australian airbase did not follow standard Defence Force protocol, according to two former prime ministers.
Both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd could not recall ever receiving the red-carpet treatment at an Australian military base.
A spokeswoman for Mr Turnbull said the ex-prime minister “doesn’t recall any domestic arrivals at a RAAF Base or commercial airport where he was greeted by a Ceremonial Stairway Guard”.
Mr Rudd’s spokesman added that, to Mr Rudd’s knowledge, such a welcome was not standard protocol for a prime-ministerial visit to a defence force facility.
The former leaders’ comments come after a photo showing Mr Morrison alighting a plane onto a red carpet flanked by armed soldiers at RAAF Base Williamtown was posted to the Prime Minister’s Instagram account on May 7.
The image was met with disbelief online, including from former Defence Force members.
Ray Martin, a 40-year ADF veteran, said on Twitter that during his time in service under eight prime ministers he “never saw one receive a red carpet and an honour guard for an internal visit to a base”.
According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Defence, the image shows a “Ceremonial Stairway Guard comprising of serving members from RAAF Base Williamtown”.
She added that most Air Force bases maintained a red carpet for ceremonial events and VIP arrivals, and that the Ceremonial Stairway Guard was “standard protocol for the arrival of VIPs”, including prime ministers.
But that assertion, which contradicts the recollections of Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull, was strongly challenged by Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, who said he initially thought the photo was a “photoshopped hoax”.
“Is it standard procedure for a prime minister to be greeted by a Ceremonial Stair Guard? The clear answer is no,” Mr James said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re visiting a ship, an army base or an airforce base, this just doesn’t happen.”
According to Mr James, a VIP welcome was reserved for dignitaries such as the Governor-General, a visiting head of state, or the monarch.
“Generally speaking, a visit by a minister, including the prime minister, is not a VIP visit,” Mr James said.
A spokesman for Mr Morrison declined to answer questions about who arranged for the red carpet and ceremonial guard, but did confirm that the image was not photoshopped.
Mr James added that to see members presenting arms, as those alongside the red carpet in the photo of Mr Morrison were pictured doing, was “most unusual”.
“You normally only present arms on a formal parade ground,” he said.
Why is the photo a big deal?
According to Mr James, the backlash to the photo of Mr Morrison was “fully justified”.
“One of the key points about the Defence Force is that you don’t bring the Defence Force into political controversy,” Mr James said.
He explained that the principle of civil control of the military was reciprocal, and that while it was important that the Defence Force not get involved in politics, it was also the responsibility of politicians to not involve it.
“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,” he said.
According to Mr James, the decision to post the photo of Mr Morrison to Instagram was “dumb”.
“Surely someone in the Prime Minister’s Office should have looked at it and said ‘this will embarrass the political neutrality of the Defence Force, we shouldn’t use this'”, he said.
A dive into the archives
Fact Check has searched both the Defence Force image archives and the National Library of Australia’s newspaper archive, Trove, for previous instances of Ceremonial Guards and red carpets being used to welcome prime ministers and other dignitaries at Defence Force facilities.
In February of this year, the Ministers for Defence and Defence Industry, Linda Reynolds and Melissa Price, as well as the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld and Air-Vice Marshal Cath Roberts, were pictured being greeted at RAAF Base Williamtown in a similar fashion.
They were accompanied by Mr Morrison, though he is not visible in the photos.
Other images show Ceremonial Guards and red carpets in place for an official visit from the head of the Indonesian Air Force in 2007, as well as a visit from former Governor-General Peter Cosgrove to RAAF Base Darwin in 2018.
Fact Check was unable to find images or reports of former prime ministers receiving the same welcome.
Ellen McCutchan is a senior researcher with the RMIT ABC Fact Check Team and editor of the weekly CoronaCheck newsletter