The Abbott government’s shift from Voltaire to Orwell last week is an act of political desperation. Replacing divisive changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (because they have no hope of going anywhere) with an equally divisive ramping up of counter-terrorism laws suggests the government is using up the last reserves of its political capital.
The carbon tax repeal did nothing to lift polling for the government. The looming showdown in the Senate over the class war-inspired budget is going to get very ugly, as the government racks up breaking a runaway number of election promises and a record number of own goals.
So what governments on the left, right and centre in western liberal-democracies often do when they are cornered is play the counter-terrorism card. What defines the modern state is that it has a monopoly over both the legitimate use of violence and intelligence in the name of national security.
The Nixon tapes released this month in the US reveal that in 1970, the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, urged president Nixon to keep the Vietnam War going for a further two years for political reasons – to maximise chances of re-election. Thousands of American lives were lost during those two years.
When a sitting government is in political peril, it might be encouraged to play the national security card to put itself on a ‘war footing’ whether this war is with alleged jihadists who have taken up arms against Australian allies, or a trade sanctions war with Russia, or a war with an enemy who Brandis believes:
… germinates within our suburbs.
With the exception of surveillance of phone numbers and IP address records and restrictions on Australians travelling to places where there is specifically Islamic conflict such as Syria, details of the proposed overhaul of counter-terrorism arrangements have not been forthcoming. What is evident is that just raising an alarm about national security fears is likely to play to enough of the electorate to give the government a lift.
The proof that this is being done for political reasons is in three parts. First, when in opposition, the IP snooping laws alone were vigorously pilloried by the same politicians who are introducing them now.
Second is the fact that amendments to laws governing Australia’s national security organisations were already introduced in July without any fanfare, so the ‘Team Australia’ press conference was calculated to isolate Muslim communities.
And third is the fact that Abbott has centralised government to the prime minister’s office (in a form almost identical to Kevin Rudd). As Peter Hartcher notes, this office leaked the misnamed ‘metadata’ policy to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper before Cabinet had heard of it when it met last week.
This last revelation is potentially explosive but, fortunately for Abbott, and unfortunately for Australia’s political culture, the mainstream media has bought into this latest episode in a very old narrative about counter-terrorism.
There may be little doubt that at least some of the jihadist activities that the government has recently pointed to are very real, and that they may one day pose a threat that could reach Australian soil. But consider that no terrorists fatalities have actually ever occurred on Australian soil (with the ambiguous exception of the Sydney Hilton bombing in 1978), and that the most celebrified of so-called jihadists – David Hicks and ‘Jihad’ Jack Thomas – have been from non-Islamic family backgrounds looking to be participants in a macarbre kind of war-tourism rather than driven by extreme elements of an Islamic counter-modernity.
Because of this, some have argued – prior to the Abbott government coming to power – that Australia’s counter-terrorism laws are an excessive over-reaction to 9/11.
Nevertheless, we are likely to hear more about counter-terrorism from the government, although commentators have already cautioned against the perils of overplaying this card. It could backfire with the electorate, just as ditching the race hate law repeals have alienated more extreme members of the Liberal Party.
The role of the media in public perceptions of terrorism has dramatically escalated since 9/11. In 2006, two Swiss economists, Bruno Frey and Dominic Rohner conducted a brilliant study into the media-terrorism relationship. In their research into the reporting of terrorism in two international broadsheet newspapers, they argue that mainstream media and terrorist groups help each other out.
The readership and profits of newspapers increase following terrorist incidents while the terrorist groups get publicity, feeding further acts of terror in an ever-expanding cycle of violence and spectacle. For this reason, tabloid newspapers in particular are very keen to report even the slightest hint of terrorism.
But we could also point here to Margaret Thatcher’s very wise policy on terrorism – that if you really wish to protect citizens, you do so by discouraging media coverage of it. “Media coverage is the oxygen of terrorism”, observed Thatcher. If politicians act irresponsibly and feed media with national security fears, they can actually incite race hate, violence and extreme acts. Therefore, the only time a government would play this card is when it is itself under threat.
We saw it play out last week like an object lesson in how to feed a news cycle to the point where it can feed off itself. The paradigm case for what unfolded last week can be seen in the work of Paul Lazarsfeld, who wrote a foundational text in communications studies in 1941, which took up a case study of research on the generation of fear in the media at the time presented as a ‘fable’.
In it, Lazarsfeld describes the way public opinion evolves in a dynamic interaction between political actors, journalists, ‘opinion leaders’ and audiences, with his paradigm case study being – you guessed it – the religious or racial profiling of ‘aliens’.
Reading the ‘fable’ in his essay, set in 1940s America before it entered the war, you could be forgiven for thinking he was writing about last week in Australia. The forerunner to the media current was the story reported across many news outlets from late July about arrest warrants for two ex-Sydney men, Mohamed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf, fighting in Syria.
The focus on these men stemmed from the earlier publication of images of one of them holding up decapitated heads of fighters killed in the Syrian conflict. Then the Daily Telegraph ran a story saying the men pledged to bring the horror of jihadi violence back to Australian shores.
In the online version of the Daily Telegraph, this story is the only story since July to have remained in the top five most popular stories for each day, reaching number one spot on August 6, the day after Abbott and Brandis gave their press conference.
But on the day of the presser, the details of the electronic monitoring of terrorism had already been leaked to the Daily Telegraph, further legitimising the need for a political announcement about national security. Abbott’s speech took its script from the paper rather than the other way around.
Simon Benson’s article makes it clear:
The government will today unveil national security legislative changes – first revealed by the Daily Telegraph – in response to the recent phenomenon of Australian jihadists fighting abroad. Mr Brandis has named the domestic threat to national security the most serious “in decades”.
The result has been the creation of division in the Australian community and a nasty shift in political culture set to rival the depravity of the asylum seeker situation. Abbott’s presser even foreshadowed that the revamp of counter-terrorism measures would emulate the techniques used in Operation Sovereign Borders.
As with border control, the creation of ‘Team Australia’ is made possible by defining some Australian citizens as aliens that are either real or imagined threats to an idealised Australian way of life.
The outcome is that this particular form of ‘terrorism’ in our midst is officially discovered as a ‘problem’ that is projected beyond the current newscycle to be one we must face for 100 years. And The Australian has followed this up today with ‘exclusive images’ of the severed heads from July being held up by the son of one of the jihadists, followed by comments from Abbott on the barbarism of this image.
What is really sad about this latest turn in the news cycle is that it taps into fears that are irrational in the sense they are founded on judgements about risk that are way down the hierarchy of risks that really face Australians, compared to the most obvious forms of risk: health and global warming.
The great irony of last week’s events is that Abbott actually does have a legitimate ‘moral panic’ card he can play to the electorate that would do a much better job than terrorism in generating something for the voters to really think about.
Suppose Abbott said that intelligence (from climate scientists) suggests that Australia is in grave danger from climate change; that the impacts will be catastrophic to our health and our communities; and that the government intends to do something about it.
Abbott could even give it a military frame of reference and point out that defence experts overseas see it as the greatest looming threat to national security; that climate change has already been the catalyst for the Syrian conflict; and that it is a threat multiplier for so many new potential conflicts.
The speech would be very easy to write, and Abbott just has to wait for the next extreme weather event to deliver it.