An insult to a general has caused an outbreak of parliamentary hypocrisy that seems to be based on the strange assumption that somehow a military uniform, preferably with a few stars on the epaulettes, puts a person beyond criticism.
The cause was Labor’s defence spokesman Stephen Conroy accusing Angus Campbell, the general who runs the patriotically-named Operation Sovereign Borders with Scott Morrison, of a political cover-up during a heated Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday.
Campbell took offence and Conroy duly withdrew the remark but didn’t apologise.
Come question time on Wednesday and, after being on the defensive over junior health minister Fiona Nash and her conflicted former chief of staff, the government used the Conroy barb to counter-attack.
Julie Bishop led the way with phrases like Conroy’s “despicable slur” and “gross disrespect”.
Stuart Robert, a former officer himself, said Australia’s serving men and women deserve more than grubby attacks.
Then Andrew Wilkie interrupted question time with a motion, enthusiastically supported by the government, to admonish Conroy for calling Campbell’s integrity into question.
That enabled Bishop to return to the attack, describing Conroy as a “factional bovver boy” who’d made a despicable attack on one of Australia’s finest military commanders.
All this was meant to embarrass Bill Shorten. He either supported the motion and abandoned a shadow minister of factional significance, or he opposed it and risked being portrayed as anti-military.
He chose the latter course – first swearing admiration for Campbell and the military and then accusing the government of sanctimonious faux patriotism.
The military deserves better than having you hide behind their uniforms, he told the jeering government benches.
Shorten had a point, for flag-draped hypocrisy was palpable.
But no-one questioned whether the affair was worth all the huff and puff.
Campbell, who must be a tough sort of a bloke, is part of a highly political operation. Being in a uniform is no reason why he shouldn’t face tough questions. Nor does a uniform confer some special wisdom or protection.
Senate estimates can be harrowing. Ask any number of senior public servants. Ask NBN Co chief Ziggy Switkowski, whom Conroy – who was obviously on a roll on Tuesday – accused of lying.
Generally, they just cop it.[polldaddy poll=7831330]