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Abbott’s stoking of terrorist fears may be a political sideshow

Tony Abbott’s statement to parliament on national security is to come amidst a difficult time for the prime minister. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Prime Minister Tony Abbott looks set to make a case for further sweeping national security changes in the wake of recent terrorist attacks and arrests.

Speaking in advance of a statement to parliament early next week, Abbott argued that, for too long, Australia’s approach to border controls, citizenship and even welfare had given dangerous characters the “benefit of the doubt”.

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.

Abbott went on to suggest that the government was determined to take “remedial action” in response to a review of the Martin Place siege in Sydney in late 2014.

The spectre of threat and the politics of fear

Concerns about terrorism in Western states are clearly on the rise. Western states have returned to the intervention they had hoped was behind them following Islamic State’s (IS) emergence in the power vacuum of Iraq and the civil war in Syria.

High-profile attacks in Paris and Copenhagen have placed Islamic fundamentalist terrorism on the streets of Western cities. The speed with which the Martin Place siege was linked to militant Islamist terrorism was an indicator that Australians too are deeply concerned about the terror threat within.

But the timing of Abbott’s statement – in the midst of a difficult period for the prime minister – is suspicious. Abbott is reeling from a series of poor “captain’s calls”, serious and unresolved questions about his leadership and disastrous opinion polling. In this context, the return to the safe conservative ground of national security suggests itself as an obvious diversionary tactic.

While a way of refocusing domestic attention, there is also a basis for suggesting that emphasising national security threats and responses serves the government’s political agenda more directly.

A range of security analysts have argued that stoking security concerns can serve to justify extreme measures and drive support for the governments promoting them. This is particularly the case with terrorism.

Dangers of the “threat within” can be used to justify significant domestic restrictions of civil liberties or even military action abroad. This was a hallmark of the “war on terror” and the Cold War before it.

Less directly, raising concerns about security and terrorism can also be a way for governments to bolster their own support. The logic usually goes something like: “the world is dangerous”, “we need to be vigilant”, “only this government can be trusted to make the difficult decisions necessary to protect you and your loved ones”. This is a trope particularly favoured by conservative political leaders.

Ronald Reagan’s famous “Bear in the Woods” campaign advertisement in the lead-up to the 1984 US presidential election was one such example. Reagan linked fear of the Soviet Union to the need for his re-election and continued military spending.

In Australia, the Howard government’s “Be Alert, But Not Alarmed” campaign, which began after the 2002 Bali bombings, also largely followed this script.

For many, this relationship between fear, security and political legitimacy has also been at the heart of why successive Australian governments have viewed asylum seekers through the lens of “border security”. The current government’s success in stopping the boats has come at a significant financial cost, as well as to Australia’s international reputation and the well-being of asylum seekers. Yet it has enjoyed significant public support, and Abbott has hailed this as one of his government’s key achievements.

Journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson have linked the extraordinary language and militarised response to asylum seekers in 2001 to the Howard government’s election victory just months later.

The costs of a hardline stance

In emphasising that Australians could not afford to give the benefit of the doubt to “bad people”, Abbott is clearly trying to return to safer political ground and to position himself as a strong man on national security. But this strategy has costs.

First, a harder line on immigration, citizenship and welfare suggests a less open and inclusive society. For liberals this is a problem in and of itself. It risks degrading key elements of a democratic and multicultural society, and compromising the values that Australia should promote and embrace.

Analysts linked then-prime minister John Howard’s hardline national security stance in the “war on terror” to the ugly Cronulla race riots of 2005. This remains a low point in Australia’s experience with multiculturalism.

But even on its own terms it risks becoming self-defeating. Research tells us that a hardline approach to “suspect” communities will further ingrain their sense of marginalisation and make radicalisation more likely. In this sense, effective responses to the terrorist “threat within” might require us to be more open and engaged, finding new opportunities for drawing such communities into the national community.

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