Call in the Khaki: the Australian Defense Force and COVID-19

Towards the latter part of July, Australia’s unimaginative Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a request from the police commissioner from the state of New South Wales.  It was a query on whether personnel from the Australian Defence Forces might aid in patrolling eight local government areas in Sydney subject to pandemic restrictions.

The NSW police minister David Elliot explained their function: the soldiers would be aiding the police with “extra capability when it comes to ensuring compliance”.  They would mainly be directed to a “very active small minority … that think the laws don’t apply to them.”

Morrison, in addressing the parameters of the deployment, stated that ADF personnel were “there to support authorised law enforcement officers in New South Wales”.  As in the case of Victoria last year, they would “support and assist […] doing many tasks from driving vehicles to supporting logistics to assisting communities by checking on the welfare of the people, checking in on people’s isolation.”

Writing in the Spectator Australia, Pete Shmigel was unimpressed by the lack of clarity in the deployment, the details of which remain secret.  “Indeed, it’s difficult to be clear if the ADF is patrolling with the Police, or providing some forms of logistical support, or acting as welfare officers, or being Uber drivers.”

Cumberland Mayor Steve Christou was similarly put out by the deployment of military muscle, even if it would lack arms or any official powers.  In terms of demographics, the Cumberland district he represents was one of the poorest; residents “already feel picked on and marginalised.”  They were unable to “pay the mortgage, the rent, the food or work.  Now to throw the army out to enforce lockdown on the streets is going to be a huge issue with these people.”  To make matters worse, many were refugees whose experience with khaki clad personnel would have been rather different to those of many Australians.

Christou has good grounds to be worried.  The military can hardly count as pandemic specialists, nor can they be seen as ideal agents of public health control.  Certain fields of public endeavour should treat military incursions with the due consideration of a lengthy barge pole. But the formula has been repeated across the globe. The symbolic force and connotations of having military participants is a signal warning to the public that they should behave.

Parts of Sydney are not the only ones exposed to this military flavour.  The entire country has since faced a distinctly military flavour in the COVID-19 response.  While Adam Kamradt-Scott, an authority on global health, suggests that militaries, with their preparedness for war, have “extremely good logistics” otherwise “lacking in civilian equivalents”, the ADF has historically resisted a public health role.

The presence of military personnel, notably in terms of the vaccination program, is strong. In April, the Morrison government appointed Commodore Eric Young of the Royal Australian Navy as Operations Coordinator from the Vaccine Operations Centre.  In making the announcement, Health Minister Greg Hunt recalled the role played during this pandemic crisis by other members of the ADF, including the contribution of Commodore Mark Hill, who was involved in the Aged Care Response Centre in Victoria.  He also thanked those “thousands and thousands of Defence personnel who’ve assisted with contact tracing, with testing, with vaccination teams that have been out in particular parts of Australia”.

In June, Lieutenant General John Frewen joined the public face of the national COVID-19 response as head of the vaccine taskforce, known bombastically as Operation COVID Shield.  “The National COVID Vaccine Taskforce,” stated Morrison, “will help ensure as many Australians are vaccinated as early as possible within the available supply.”  In a matter of days, the General began assuming a prominent role that had the effect of displacing the civilians present. In effect, he had assumed the responsibilities previously held by the retiring health associate secretary Caroline Edwards.

The move also served to create confusion in the media pack.  When asked by Guardian Australia about what exactly his role was, the response was classically bureaucratic.  The health minister’s office was the first to be contacted about clarifying this new, nebulous role.  Those queries were quickly directed to the Department of Health.  The department, in turn, pushed those queries off to the Prime Minister’s office, only to have those same queries referred back to the Department of Health.

A curt statement was eventually issued from a spokesperson for COVID Shield, achieving little by way of clarification.  “Lieutenant General Frewen is a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force,” it began, banally.  “LTGEN Frewen is currently seconded to Operation COVID Shield as Coordinator General and remains an Officer of the Australian Defence Force.  More information about this role can be found in the Prime Minister’s 4 June 2021 National Cabinet Statement.”

This threadbare response went on to outline that further details on Frewen’s responsibilities as coordinator general of the taskforce could be found at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on June 21, 2021.  Frewen did not give much away before the Senators, though he did tell the committee that his reporting lines were directly to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health.  He also provided briefings to the national cabinet and was to “engage” with the relevant secretaries.  In terms of influence, he claimed to “have direct operational control of all relevant assets and resources across the Commonwealth and I’m also responsible for communication with the public and engagement with the states and territories, health providers, and other key stakeholders to ensure the most efficient and effective distribution of the vaccine.”

The meetings came, as did the military brass and photo shoots, prompting remarks that Morrison had simply “outsourced” the pandemic response only to hide behind military uniform.  Former Labor deputy prime minister Wayne Swayne was all thunder at the spectacle.  “How pathetic it is to see Morrison rollout Generals on TV to camouflage his failure to purchase the quantity and the quality of vaccines urgently required to protect Australia.”

Australia’s resort to the military in these pandemic times is unexceptional.  When found short in their civilian deployments, the authorities in many countries have called upon the armed forces to provide assistance.  But the pressing concern when using such personnel, notably in instances where their roles and positions are unclear, can only trouble the purists of accountability.  For Morrison, the move is very much in the tradition of mass distraction and excuse.  If more things go wrong, blame the medically inexpert Lieutenant General.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: