(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Scott Morrison’s photo op during an airbase visit — which went viral after people noticed an unusual red carpet welcome from an honour guard — was preplanned and broke with normal protocol, according to internal Defence emails.

The prime minister posted an image of himself visiting the Williamtown RAAF Base to virtually attend the national cabinet on his Instagram on May 7.

The image, which depicts Morrison walking a red carpet with an honour guard of Air Force service people saluting, was criticised as being out of step with normal procedures for previous prime ministers. Both former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC they’d never had an honour guard or red carpet welcome at bases.

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Emails obtained by Crikey under freedom of information laws show Australian Defence Force staff coordinating Morrison’s visit to the base, including correspondence with the prime minister’s staff.

It reveals that Morrison’s staff planned the photo opportunity, while also showing Defence staff scrambling to explain why the guard departed from normal VIP treatment once it went viral.

The first email about the visit comes from the secretary of the Department of Defence’s executive assistant on May 4, thanking the recipient for taking their call and confirming the details of visit. 

Later in the email chain between Defence staff, one mentions the greeting arrangements for Morrison: “If arriving by Air and landing at Williamtown, VIP will be met by appropriate senior personnel at the plane stairs and escorted to the meeting venue.”

The next day, an email with the subject line “Urgent Ceremonial Support Request – Fri 07 May 21” is sent from an RAAF Williamtown warrant officer asking for 13 staff “to enable a Stair Guard to be formed”. A later email to staff chosen for the stair guard tells them to dress in tunic and medals, while also asking women to wear trousers rather than a skirt. 

There is no reference to the red carpet in the emails, and the only references to the honour guard come from ADF staff, corroborating Air Force chief Mel Hupfeld’s answers about the visit during Senate estimates. 

On Thursday, May 6, an advancer — a staff member who visits a site prior to a visit — from the Prime Minister’s Office emails Defence staff about the next day’s visit with a schedule and list of names of those attending. In the runsheet, 10 minutes is set aside for “Photo opportunity alongside runway”. An internal Defence visit program also sets aside 10 minutes for “possible photo opportunity weather permitting”.

Straight after the visit, Defence staff send around emails patting themselves on the back for the visit. 

“Some lovely feedback from [Senior Australian Defence Force Officer] for our team’s support to the PM’s attendance on base and in the [Len Waters Building] today,” an email said. “[Redacted] from the PM’s office was also very grateful for our support.” 

It’s only on Sunday that an Air Force senior digital communications adviser raises the alarm: “There has been some discussion on social media over the weekend — most of it on Sunday — regarding an image the PM posted to his Instagram Stories of him arriving at RAAF Base Williamtown walking on a red carpet.”

An RAAF Base Williamtown group captain replies, claiming that an honour guard is typical but one aspect of the greeting breaks from normal protocol: instead of using the prime minister’s normal security staff, the doors were opened by ADF members. 

“Normally his protective security team open his door but potentially because it was on base and fully secured they may have allowed our door opener to do it. I will see what I can find out,” they wrote. 

And while this moment and its surrounding controversy may be a blip in Morrison’s stint as prime minister, the photo opportunity will be saved for future generations to remember in ADF archives.  

“Please find attached a link to the imagery gathered during the PM’s visit to Base earlier this month. Please download for Unit History records,” an Air Force Imagery Specialist wrote in an email sent later that month. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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