03 June 2016
by David Wroe
Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull in staggering display of oblivious timingAustralian service personnel and their dependents, including 22 Vietnam War veterans, arrive at the Richmond RAAF base in one of the largest repatriation services in Australian history
Treasurer Scott Morrison accused Labor of declaring "war on business" and using "tax as their bullets" at the exact moment the first of two RAAF planes carrying the remains of Australian soldiers touched down on home soil.
The war rhetoric had been building for a few days but, amid its own woes over superannuation, the Coalition chose Thursday of all days to elevate this punchy and angry stuff to its main campaign grab.
It was a staggering display of oblivious timing on the day that the remains of 25 Australian soldiers – who actually died in war, some from bullets – and eight family members were being repatriated.
Military and veterans groups were unimpressed. Ken Foster, the national president of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, who was instrumental in securing the repatriation of the bodies, said war metaphors shouldn't be used and "certainly not on a day like today".
"It disrespects the veterans to use such an analogy as war fighting to discuss politics. I'd be disappointed in that," he said. "I'm sure it wasn't intentional. But the choice of words by our political leaders has an impact and they need to be careful how they use words."
Far from walking the situation back, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dug the hole deeper when asked whether people who had faced actual bullets might find such language inappropriate.
"Let me say this to you," he began in his trademark style. "Bill Shorten has declared war on business … the first casualties of Shorten's war on business are Australian jobs."
Asked whether he would use such words, he replied: "You have just heard me use them."
Neither Mr Turnbull nor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten actually attended the repatriation ceremony at Sydney's RAAF Base Richmond, though frontbenchers from both sides were there, as well as Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Mr Turnbull spent the morning at a mattress factory and Mr Shorten toured the Sydney Fish Markets.
Veterans groups were not particularly dismayed, however, by the leaders' absence.
But the argument is often made that politicians need to be at such events to reinforce an understanding of their decisions. Certainly if Mr Turnbull had been at the ceremony he would have been less quick to back up Mr Morrison's poor choice of words.
The argument is often made that politicians need to be at such events to reinforce an understanding of their decisions
Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, said that "whether it's a sporting contest or a political debate, it's inappropriate to use warfare metaphors and certainly inappropriate to use them a lot, particularly when the country is at war and perhaps on a day when we are repatriating deceased soldiers from previous wars".
Mr Morrison used the word "war" 14 times, Mr Turnbull five times. Nineteen times between them is a lot.
No doubt government operatives could dig out a long rap sheet of occasions when Labor politicians have used military metaphors. It's a common bugbear among veterans groups that such language gets thrown about so easily when discussing relatively trivial things.
But this was a particularly egregious instance which showed how an election campaign can echo into a roar, unmindful of the longer perspective of the nation.