Are we peddling fear just for the sake of it?
As disturbing as the events in Ottawa were we are entitled to ask whether the political response here in Australia, on the other side of the world, was helpful or merely exploitative, writes Barrie Cassidy.
The threat of terrorism is real, but is it exaggerated?
The need to be vigilant is obvious, but do we have to live in fear?
Every time someone goes berserk overseas, do we have to behave as if it happened around the corner?
Why in 2014 is every act by a crazed gunman immediately interpreted as an act of terrorism?
And when does the rhetoric of politicians cross the boundaries from sensible public safety and security warnings to fear for the sake of it?
As disturbing as the events in Ottawa were, they could have been the actions of a “lone wolf” with a criminal history. Even if it turns out he was part of some sort of organised global terror attack – what the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, described in the Parliament as part of Islamic State’s “war on the world” – we are still entitled to ask whether the response here in Australia, on the other side of the world, was helpful or merely exploitative.
The politicians rushed to the microphones to draw the links with Australia, to underline the similarities between the two countries, and to emphasise how the same thing could so easily happen here.
The presiding officers of almost every parliament in the country put out statements on security. Tony Abbott gave an interview and followed up with a statement to the Parliament. The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten fell in behind. There was a minute’s silence. How often does that happen when a soldier in another country dies at the hands of a gunman?
Of course Australian authorities charged with the safety of the public should be impacted and instructed by the shootings in Ottawa. Of course everybody is disturbed and alarmed when these shootings happen.
But even so, why did the politicians on both sides of the aisle feel the need to see to it that every Australian shared the fear that they were so ready to express? What are we supposed to do?
Why did the politicians tell us that threats of a 17-year-old Year 10 student should leave us “chilled?” The Courier Mail, by contrast, ran a headline: “ISIS Aussie terror threat backfires. He’s just a very naughty boy.” A “naughty boy” that one senator – David Leyonhjelm – dismissed as “an absolute dickhead.”
Eminent social researcher Hugh Mackay in a 2007 speech entitled “Be Afraid” said:
Fear is a complex emotion but it comes in two main forms. There’s anticipatory fear where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it, and take the necessary evasive action.
That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence.
Then there’s inhibitory fear, where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there’s no way to discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term ‘paralysed by fear’ is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.
Terrorism is an inhibitory fear, and yet that never seems to guide the rhetoric of the politicians.
Mackay went on:
It’s no wonder we are afraid and unfocused in our fear. We’re jumpy about everything because we can’t quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next.
And that’s the point. The politicians ram this home to the public at every opportunity, and yet the safety mechanisms, the essential responses, are not a matter for them. Indeed, quite often after they’ve been told how serious is the risk, they are then told to go about their lives as normal.
Fear sells, and certainly anxiety wins support for anti-terrorism laws no matter how much they infringe on civil liberties.
Fear is the currency of both sides of politics, and not just fear of terrorism.
Labor for years exploited the fear of WorkChoices. They still do. Tony Abbott was elected off the back of a fear campaign over the carbon tax.
One day though – who knows when – terrorism and the fear of it won’t be the central issue. The Abbott Government needs to be better prepared for when that day arrives.
For example, just this week the ABS announced what the Environment Minister Greg Hunt described as “the largest quarterly fall in electricity prices in Australian history”.
“It’s likely,” he said, “that it stretches back to the Second World War, maybe stretches back further.”
In fact, prices dropped by 5 per cent between July and September. That’s a fact. And yet the perception in an Essential Poll coincidentally released this week showed that just 7 per cent of Australians believe electricity is getting cheaper.
Perhaps worse than that, only 6 per cent believe the cost of living is improving and just 6 per cent believe their jobs are more secure than they were 12 months ago.
There is a gulf between reality and perception that at some stage the government will have to tackle.
In opposition Tony Abbott skilfully stoked anxiety about power prices. He’ll find it much harder to persuade the electorate that their bills are coming down – and by extension – their cost of living is improving.
Australians might fear terrorism, but worryingly for the government, they are at the same time – in the words of Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Hartcher – stuck in a “pessimism trap”.
Hartcher drew on Ipsos research based on 12 discussion groups to observe that the electorate acknowledges the Abbott Government is trying to address a serious problem with debt and deficit.
But he then quotes the research director of the forthcoming Mind and Mood Report, Laura Demasi:
The government’s rhetoric that we’re living beyond our means, that we have to make cuts … doesn’t inspire confidence.
Coupled with that, we have the government saying “we have to make young people pay tens and tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, and to wait for unemployment benefits, and we need you to work until you’re 70. It’s that bad that we have to hit young people and old people.”
That doesn’t make people feel confident about the future.
Clearly, behind the clouds of terrorism, the government has some work to do.
Hugh Mackay’s 2007 speech ended with this advice to voters:
Above all, be afraid of the corrosive and paralysing effect of fear itself. If we allow it to dull the clarity of our focus on the local issues facing us in this election campaign, that will be a huge victory for terrorism.
John Howard lost that election. Perhaps Mackay’s words should be heeded by both the electorate – and Tony Abbott.
Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of the ABC program Insiders. View his full profile here.