In promising a new approach to government Tony Abbott has reverted to the well-thumbed pages of the politics of fear playbook that dominated domestic and international political rhetoric between 2001 – 2008.
In a speech to the nation he repeated his four step plan for terrorism – ‘a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim‘ – but also drew bizarre links between ISIS and people who “cheat” the welfare system.
It’s clear to me, that for too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt.
There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink.
And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.
We are a free and fair nation. But that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have: Well, that’s going to stop.
In connecting immigration, welfare, and the judicial system to ISIS – or as he prefers “the Islamist death cult” – the Prime Minister bundles complex and disparate institutions and policies under one banner of “national security under threat”. In using this politics of fear that equates the people on welfare or bail with ISIS, Abbott hopes to swiftly pass new legislation that purports to secure us from these fears and neuter any opposition.
The rise of the Islamist death cult in the Middle East has seen the emergence of new threats where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack.
As a nation we are responding to this threat. Abroad, Australia is working with allies to disrupt and degrade the Islamist death cult. At home, we have provided our security services with more powers, more resources and stronger laws.
We are currently considering additional legislation on data retention that’s before the Parliament – and this will make it easier to keep you safe and we want to get this legislation passed as quickly as we can.
But this is an old trick and a trick that further reveals that Tony Abbott (and most senior Australian politicians) are bereft of ideas. There is no vision other than more freedoms and less threats.
As the BBC documentary ‘Power of Nightmares‘ shows, politicians in Western liberal democracies following September 11, 2001 no longer offered visions for a grand future. They, and we, have grown cynical of dreams where “the only fear is fear itself”. Instead, the focus is on nightmares. Whoever can portray the greatest fears, yet also assurance of deliverance, is king.
This tactic arguably receded with the elections of Rudd in 2007 and Obama in 2008. Both had optimistic visions. Rudd had his “2020 Summit” and Obama his “Yes We Can”. However, with financial crises, widening gaps in economic equality within nations and between them, as well as the return of Islamic terrorism with ISIS, these optimistic slogans rang hollow and arguably reinforced cynicism. Today, there is a return to a politics of fear.
With his leadership in question Tony Abbott is resorting to a tactic he knows well from his time in the Howard Government. He may not be able to answer who he is or what he stands for in positive terms, but he is able to conduct an orchestra of threats and fears – Labor, ISIS, debt, welfare fraud, radicalisation of youth, ‘inter-generational theft’, and lenient bail laws. In orchestrating these fears, he is able to give us this assurance: “As a country, we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.”
Abbott is hopeful that this new tough line of government will save his leadership. Perhaps it will. But maybe this time we will recognise the old negative tune and demand something new – something more courageous and imaginative than borders and laws to protect “us” from a fictional “them”. Perhaps we will recognise the folly of jumping at nightmares and spectres that we help create and sustain.
See Tony Abbott’s full message here: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-02-15/message-prime-minister-0