A key candidate for Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives party has been warned over his use of special forces insignia to win votes in the upcoming election.
A Facebook ad for the party’s lead Senate candidate for Victoria, Kevin Bailey, shows a man in uniform framed in front of an Australian flag, alongside the insignia for the elite special air service regiment.
The ad, headlined “Australian Special Forces – SAS”, details Bailey’s military service in the 1980s, and has been pushed into the feeds of targeted Facebook users.
Candidates across the political spectrum frequently struggle to comply with conventions restricting candidates from using military service in political campaigning.
Veterans are generally free to talk about their service while campaigning, but must not cause voters to think their candidacy is backed by the Australian Defence Force. The conventions are designed to ensure Australia’s military is never seen as partisan and to fully segregate the ADF from party politics.
Bailey’s ad was detected using a tool developed by Guardian Australia to monitor Facebook election ads.
The Australia Defence Association, an independent and non-partisan defence watchdog, said the ad was a clear breach of its political campaigning conventions. The ADA’s executive director, Neil James, said the use of the insignia could wrongly be interpreted as ADF support for Bailey’s candidacy.
“He should have rethought the ad,” James told Guardian Australia. “The use of the badge … people who don’t understand the problem, or don’t have a sophisticated understanding of military or politics, they could be misled into thinking the candidate has been endorsed by the military.”
Bailey is the second Australian Conservatives candidate to raise questions for using uniforms in campaigning.
Sophie York, the party’s Senate candidate for New South Wales, was on Friday asked to pull down a video of her in navy uniform, according to News Corp.
Philip Thompson, the LNP’s candidate for Herbert, has also paid for a Facebook ad that uses imagery from his military service in a video about his life, though it is less clear whether this breaches conventions. Labor’s candidate for Wide Bay, Jason Scanes, has posted imagery of himself wearing service medals, but this is not generally seen as a breach of convention, according to the ADA.
During the 2016 election campaign, Labor MP Mike Kelly quit the army reserves after warnings about the use of his uniform in campaign material, while the Liberal Andrew Hastie was booted from the reserve over the same issue.
Serving military members and active reservists are governed by regulations prohibiting political campaigning while in uniform. Inactive reservists can be compelled by legal direction from the chief of defence force, but can simply resign their commission to avoid any problem.
Former military members are governed only by convention.
There is nothing in Australia’s Electoral Act that governs the way military service can be used in political campaigning.
James said the parties had been given the chance to regulate themselves, and had repeatedly failed.
The ADA wants changes to the Electoral Act to prevent the misuse of military service in campaigning.
“The problem in an election campaign is they all go for broke, the parties,” James said.
“They’re all doing it. It’s been pretty good in Labor and the Coalition. The minor parties are worse in this election. You’d put that down to a) desperation and b) a lack of political nous.”
The soldier depicted in Bailey’s ad is not from the era in which he served, according to James. The weaponry and equipment is too modern.
Australian Conservatives did not respond to requests for comment.