Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he hopes a red carpet welcome for his successor Scott Morrison at a Newcastle air force base “won’t be repeated”, after an Instagram snap of the guard of honour went viral online.
The Department of Defence claimed the official welcome – including numerous Air Force members standing at attention, brandishing Australian flags was “standard protocol”, but Mr Turnbull and fellow former PM Kevin Rudd said they never received such a welcome.
The unusual controversy was set off on May 7, when Mr Morrison visited RAAF Williamtown, north of Newcastle in the NSW Hunter region.
He was in town to announce $66 million to upgrade the Newcastle Airport runway, to allow larger aircraft to land, which Mr Morrison said would “leverage our significant defence investments at RAAF Base Williamtown”.
He flew on his private RAAF jet to Williamtown. A photo of Mr Morrison walking off the plane was posted to his Instagram, showing the PM – wearing a suit, blue tie and face mask – walking along a red carpet, as up to 10 men and women in RAAF uniforms stood to attention.
One was holding an Australian flag, another the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign.
The photo – with the caption “always good to be back in the Hunter” – was posted to Mr Morrison’s Instagram Story, a popular feature where photos automatically expire after 24 hours. It was not shared on the PM’s other social media channels, but was soon shared across Twitter by Australians curious about the ceremonial welcome.
Labor MP Brian Mitchell tweeted on May 9 that it was “right up there with knights and dames”, referring to an unpopular decision from former PM Tony Abbott to revive that system of honours.
The New Daily has been told by a senior government source that Mr Morrison’s office did not specifically request the red carpet welcome.
The ABC published an article on Monday, with claims from Mr Turnbull and Mr Rudd that they did not recall ever receiving such a welcome when visiting army facilities. Mr Rudd was PM between 2007 and 2010, then again briefly in 2013, while Mr Turnbull held the top job from 2015-18.
Mr Rudd’s office told The New Daily he did not believe such a welcome was standard protocol. Mr Turnbull echoed similar remarks.
“I don’t recall ever being received by a ceremonial guard like that with flags,” he told TND.
“It wasn’t a good look.”
Mr Turnbull claimed the ceremony was “more Ruritanian than Australian”, a reference to the mythical kingdom of Ruritania, a fictional nation which is imagined as the setting of fairy tales.
“We play down the pomp and ceremony as a rule. So I hope it won’t be repeated,” Mr Turnbull said.
Labor’s shadow defence minister, Brendan O’Connor, was also critical.
“There is a time and a place for formal protocol, but we don’t expect our leaders to indulge in confected pageantry at the taxpayers’ expense,” he told TND.
The New Daily contacted the Department of Defence on multiple occasions since May 9, asking questions about the welcome for Mr Morrison. The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While not responding to specific questions, a Defence spokesperson instead directed TND to a press release on its website from Mr Morrison and defence minister Peter Dutton, on the Newcastle airport upgrade.
The ABC quoted a Defence spokeswoman as saying the welcome – known as a ‘Ceremonial Stairway Guard’ – was “standard protocol for the arrival of VIPs” including prime ministers.
However, the ABC reported it could not find photographic examples of similar welcomes for other ministers, only the PM.
Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, told the ABC that “generally speaking, a visit by a minister, including the prime minister, is not a VIP visit.”
— Rex Patrick (@Senator_Patrick) May 16, 2021
On Monday, South Australian senator Rex Patrick tweeted it was “not the Aussie way”.
Labor MP Andrew Leigh tweeted “less of this” with a photo of the red carpet arrival.