Partisan misuse of our non-partisan defence force during elections, contentious campaigning, politically expedient government announcements and partisan stunts is always wrong

The ADF's institutional, cultural and practical non-partisanship must never be compromised for party-political expediency. The fact and public perception of our defence force's political neutrality must be preserved, and preserved consistently, for the enduring benefit of the whole Australian community. And at all times, not just during election campaigns. In summary, to keep the "gun out of our politics" our constitutional system - and its supporting conventions and practices - has necessarily evolved over centuries to ensure that "politics is kept out of the gun".

 

 

Introduction

Functioning liberal democracies require the resort to armed force to be permanently removed from their politics.

Free and peaceful elections alone must decide the formation of each Australian government.

In Westminster-system countries, nearly four centuries of constitutional evolution since the English Civil War has resulted in Australia inheriting a democratic system strengthened by the effective institutional and cultural segregation of our defence force from party politics.

We all have a major interest in keeping it this way.

 

Background

Just over a century ago, the March 1914 "Curragh Mutiny" in Ireland further stengthened the Westminster-system principles and practices involved for the modern era.

The threatened (but not actioned) peaceable civil disobedience by some British Army officers during the incident emphasised the importance of removing even a perception that a democracy's military could legitimately seek to interfere in domestic politics.

Some of this necessary segregation of the military from party politics is enshrined in statute.

Other aspects depend on the relevant constitutional convention being respected on all sides of politics and across Australian society generally — not just by members of our defence force.

The first part of this constitutional convention is that, no matter what their personal political beliefs might be, our defence force is required to be institutionally and professionally non-partisan in absolute terms.

This institutional culture and practice requires all ADF personnel to be non-partisan individually, collectively and professionally in the execution of their duties.

The second and reciprocal part of the convention, by civil society, is that the ADF's party-political neutrality is preserved and respected consistently over the long term.

This necessary neutrality must never be undermined, in fact or perception, no matter what some partisans might desire as a politically expedient action at any particular time.

Moreover, this reciprocal preservation of the non-partisanship convention applies to all Australian citizens, on all sides of politics and across the spectrum of public opinion generally.

It therefore also applies to former defence force members, as civilian citizens, just as much as if they were still serving in the ADF.

Unfortunately, the need to preserve and respect such longstanding Westminster-system conventions is not always as well understood or as appreciated across civil society as it used to be.

Especially as education in constitutional principles at school has declined in general.

Its also affected by so few Australians now having exposure to this particular convention, in even their extended family, through family members having personal experience of defence force service and how such service relates to society as a whole.

This dearth of knowledge includes the now minimal defence force experience among most of our federal and state parliamentarians — and across our political parties generally.

 

Supporting structures

The longstanding principle of civil-control-of-the-military — by ministers on behalf of parliament alone — stems from the Australian Consitution and the Defence Act based on relevant constitutional heads-of-power.

The principle is also imbued deeply in the institutional culture and practices of the ADF and in wider constitutional philosophy, structures and processes nationally.

To assist in these regards, the ADF's necessary non-partisanship is reinforced by a time-tested range of complementary checks and balances:

  • National Symbolism. National protocols — such as our Army being the designated protector of the national flag, and the Army having no flag but the national one — signify that our Army and the rest of the Australian people are united, not separate, components of the Australian nation and our democratic system of government.
  • National Culture. Our defence force is necessarily focused operationally and culturally on protecting Australia's sovereign freedom-of-action from external strategic risks. The ADF is deliberately not a force focused on internal security, including civil law enforcement domestically. Nor does our defence force consider it has such a role institutionally.
  • Constitutional Control. The command-in-chief of the ADF is held by the Crown as an above-politics titular appointment — and exercised by the Governor-General only on the advice of the elected government. Civil control of our defence force is exercised by the Minister for Defence, as per the Defence Act, itself based on specific constitutional heads of power.
  • Primacy of Civil Law. The principles of civil-control-of-the-military and civil primacy are always preserved. Martial law, for example, is not possible in Australia either constitutionally or by statute. Even on those very rare occasions where the ADF is directed by the Minister for Defence to support the civil police by the use of armed force in certain specific and serious situations, the civil police remain in overall charge and civil law continues to apply. Even during counter-terrorism actions requiring the application of supporting military force beyond police resources. Similarly, ADF support to civil agencies on border security matters does not generally involve the use of force, such civil agencies always remain in charge, and only civil law applies.
  • Electoral Candidacy. ADF personnel are required by law (and regulations under the law)  to resign from the full-time defence force, or suspend any existing reservist service, when nominating for election to, and serving in, any parliament.
  • Operations. While our defence force always remains under the control of its Minister constitutionally, separation of party-politics from the ADF chain-of-command and the force's day-to-day operations is maximised. This is embedded by a range of legal measures and time-tested conventions concerning the difference between military command and ministerial control. While rightly controlling the activities of the ADF, as per the Constitution and the Defence Act, the Minister for Defence cannot lawfully issue orders directly to any defence force member except the Chief of Defence Force (CDF). The Minister's directions (assuming they are also lawful) are then passed on as orders by the CDF down through the force's chain-of-command.
  • Institutional Safeguards. A range of institutional safeguards also apply:
    • Educating and  training defence force personnel in all the above measures.
    • Forbidding, by regulations under the Defence Act, party-political activities (including electioneering and fundraising) being conducted on ADF bases;
    • Enforcing the ministerial direction, under governments of both political persuasions, that parliamentarians cannot visit ADF bases without prior permission of the Minister for Defence, and cannot do so at all during election campaigns.
    • Forbidding defence force personnel, by regulations under the Defence Act, from involving themselves in party-politics or other politically controversial issues — on or off an ADF base — where the institutional non-partisanship of the force collectively, or of a member individually, might be compromised in fact or public perception. Examples include wearing ADF uniform or otherwise representing or publicising membership of the ADF during party-political or other politically controversial activities.

 

Abuses of the non-partisanship convention by civil society

Through calculation, ignorance or lack of thought, the ADF's institutional non-partisanship is sometimes compromised in fact or public perception.

Every Australian loses when the relevant and long-established constitutional conventions, and the non-partisanship practices that implement them, are ignored, improperly exploited or otherwise not respected.

As part of its independent, non-partisan, public-interest oversight role the Australia Defence Association has long protested deliberate or accidental abuses of the defence force's non-partisan status and ethos.

Improper politicisation or related misrepresentation of the ADF and its actual national role falls into several broad categories:

 

  • General political argy-bargy misrepresenting the role or activities of the ADF. A frequent problem is where the ADF is criticised (by anyone) in political terms, or there is partisan misrepresentation of its role and activities, when the force is necessarily carrying out lawful orders of the elected government. Examples include:
    • domestic opponents of a particular war or other overseas operation denigrate the ADF and its personnel in a partisan manner, rather than criticise the government actually responsible for the decision to commit them there (and which our defence force must necessarily obey).
    • the ADF's purely logistic support (unarmed, no use of force, no involvement in law enforcement, etc) to the whole-of-government intervention in NT indigenous communities being portrayed by some political partisans in factually incorrect and emotively expressed terms such as "an invasion" of such communities or "the Army coming to take your kids away".
  • Hijacking of ADF activities in the wider community.
    • Politicians, rather than a neutral public figure (such as the Governor-General, state Governor or local independent civic dignitary) preside over farewell and welcome home ceremonies for ADF contingents being deployed, or returning from, overseas.
    • Parliamentarians attend farewell and welcome home ceremonies, or visit overseas deployments, for perceived electoral gain (such as photo opportunities), rather than on legitimate ministerial, parliamentary-committee or electorate business.
    • Parliamentarians preside over wartime and other commemoration ceremonies involving ADF participation, or attend such ceremonies in general, to obtain photographs or TV footage of themselves with ADF personnel for use in social media or election material.
    • ADF personnel being used improperly as background props during party-political announcements and events. Examples include:
      • Defence White Paper "launches" (especially when such papers have not been first tabled in Parliament);
      • politically-slanted publicity about ADF capability projects;
      • announcements about defence capability projects when these involve industry pork-barrelling for vote-buying, donation-seeking or other political purposes; and
      • any event involving the ADF staged during an election campaign.
  • Improper exploitation of contact with ADF personnel.
    • Use of photographs from the (two-week attachment) Parliamentary-ADF exchange program to imply the parliamentarian has actually served in the defence force. This also undermines a highly successful program aimed at improving knowledge about the ADF among MPs and senators.
    • Parliamentarians visiting ADF bases to obtain photographs or TV footage of themselves with ADF personnel for use in subsequent electoral material. This is a particular problem when visits to bases are misused by a member of federal or state parliament for the electorate in which the base is located.
  • Improper exploitation of information dissemination about normal ADF administration.
    • All public information matters concerning the defence force — even the most mundane or routine ones — being centrally announced by Ministerial media statements as a partisan-political message, rather than as used to occur, the public being informed directly as a matter of course by an ADF spokesperson at the most relevant local level.
    • Ministers insisting their photograph be included, often repetitively, in explanatory pamplets or other advertising about administrative or policy matters internal to the operation of the ADF where this is the type of administrative matter, or policy change, that would occur no matter what political party formed the government.
  • Improper electioneering.
    • Any visit by parliamentary candidates to an ADF base during an election campaign (unless by a Defence portfolio minister on business concerning ongoing ADF operations unrelated to the election campaign).
    • Electioneering or other partisan material stating or implying that the ADF supports a particular candidate, party or policy.
    • Election billboards, posters or corflutes featuring a candidate in ADF uniform (in such context-free advertising).
    • Candidates for election to a parliament, or politicians generally, using their ADF rank as a title, or publishing other material that includes photographs of them wearing ADF uniform unless:
      • they have actually served in the full-time or part-time defence force (not just attended a parliamentary-ADF exchange program);
      • the photograph is for informative purposes about the candidate's or politician's life experience across a range of occupations and situations, and is only in a leaflet, or on a card, website or in social media where such a photo is just one of a montage showing such a range and is not the principal photograph; and
      • all photos in this wider montage are of similar size, quality and prominence — and the ones with the candidate or politician in uniform are not on the covers of the leaflet or on a website or social media homepage (where such a photograph risks being seen in isolation from a candidate's or politician's wider whole-of-life context).

Photographs in election or other political material of politicians wearing their military service medals when dressed in civilian attire is generally considered as not breaching the non-partisanship convention.

First, because this is the right of any medal recipient. Second, because the award of medals shows non-partisan public recognition for ADF or other service. Finally, because it could not reasonably be viewed as somehow representing or implying defence force endorsement of that candidate or politician.

However excessive emphasis on the wearing of medals, such as when campaigning in public or featuring such photos in electoral or other political material disproportionally, is generally regarded as being in poor taste. As is the wearing of medals not awarded to the person wearing them.

 

Abuses of the non-partisanship convention in the 2016 and 2019 elections

In both recent federal elections some candidates, on both sides of politics, unfortunately chose to use election billboards, posters and corflutes that only, or prominently, featured them wearing an ADF uniform. 

Examples included the 2016 Labor candidate in the Queensland electorate of Brisbane and the 2016 Liberal candidate for the Western Australian electorate of Canning. Sadly, further examples in both major parties, and in several minor ones, have occurred in the 2019 election campaign.

In both elections, on both sides of politics, billboards or posters have also included photos of the candidate in ADF uniform accompanied by ambiguous electoral slogans referring to them continuing to "serve". Such slogans magnify the photo's risk of being read, out of context and misleadingly, as the ADF endorsing that person's candidacy.

It is the prominence without context of billboards, posters and corflutes that makes this form of electoral advertising such a serious and unequivocal breach of the non-partisanship convention by the parties and candidates concerned. 

Billboards, posters and corflutes are highly visible, designed to sell their message both consciously and subliminally but invariably seen without providing the observer with any wider context — such as broader knowledge of the candidate.

Such forms of electoral advertising need to be avoided becsause they constitute a particularly high risk of being misconstrued as the ADF somehow endorsing that candidate or their political stance.

If the non-partisanship convention continues to be abused in this manner, the wearing of a defence force uniform in any form of election material will need to be regulated (to varying degrees) by the Commonwealth Electoral Act — as occurs with other important aspects of potentially misleading electoral advertising.

If political parties can no longer be trusted to preserve the need for ADF political neutrality by reciprocating the non-partisanship convention, statutory prohibition becomes the only solution.

 

Preserving this important Westminster-system convention

Australia having an institutionally non-partisan defence force remains a major strength of our system of democratic government and its supporting national culture.

But the success of this non-partisanship convention is dependent on it being truly reciprocal.

Nationally beneficial conventions in particular, and each political party's integrity in general, are strengthened by ethical bipartisan behaviour concerning key national interest issues — even where this may seem at first to be electorally disadvantageous in the short term.

A commonplace but invalid excuse for misuse of the defence force's non-partisan status is that someone from the opposite side of politics has done it too.

But two wrongs never make a right. Or indeed make it right.

Particularly where our defence force points out an abuse of its necessary non-partisan status, but partisans turn logic on its head. Often by reflexively accusing the ADF (or other objective observer) of somehow being "against them" in a partisan fashion simply by drawing attention to the abuse.

Another excuse from some is that the candidate is no longer a member of the ADF and "cannot be ordered to do anything".

But this attempted excuse fundamentally misses the point. All candidates are still citizens and the convention's reciprocity by the civil community still applies.

The extension of electoral and political advertising into social media does not change the principles involved.

Nor does it somehow invalidate the longstanding and well-proven non-partisanship convention. All it does is extend how the convention needs to be consistently respected and, if necessary, enforced.

Finally, former members of the ADF, when pressured by their party machines to exploit their prior defence force service improperly, need to remind the parties concerned of four points.

  • The non-partisanship convention has an enduring national purpose well beyond the winning of any particular election or political advantage.
  • Even minor breaches of the convention risk weakening our democratic system of government by reinforcing the thin edge of an ultimately quite dangerous wedge.
  • Every Australian loses if our defence force is seen to be or becomes politicised. 
  • As with other constitutional conventions, every Australian — whether in the ADF or not — is bound by the non-partsanship convention concerning our defence force. 

Due to the extent the non-partisanship convention has not been observed in the 2016 and 2019 federal elections, and the extent that some have tried to excuse such breaches, the wearing of ADF uniform in any electoral advertising should now be regulated by the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

 

 

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