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ALP MP discusses her book 'Fear and politics'.

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Tuesday, 20 June 2006



FRAN KELLY: Today, a new opinion poll is being released that gauges the fears of Australians when it comes to security issues. A new quarterly survey from Newspoll will look at what we think about terrorism, health pandemics, Internet fraud and identity theft. But where does all the concern about potential threats actually get us? Whether they are legitimate or not, should we be devoting so much energy to thinking about them? Do we need to, and when we do, how does it affect us as individuals and collectively?


Dr Carmen Lawrence is a former Premier of Western Australia, a Cabinet minister in the Keating government and currently is the alternating President of the ALP. She believes that fear has played a crucial part in shaping Australian public policy in recent years, with dire consequences for the body politic. She has written a new book called Fear and politics , and she joins us this morning from our Parliament House studio.


Carmen Lawrence, good morning.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Good morning, Fran.


FRAN KELLY: Carmen, fear and politics are long-time bedfellows. What’s different now in the 21 st century from, say, the Communist fifties and sixties and reds under the beds?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Well, there are a great many similarities in fact. I think we are going through perhaps what is almost a predictable cycle of the use of fear in circumstances where clearly there are severe problems relating to terrorism. No-one would deny that people are being killed, have been killed, but those fears I think have been amplified beyond the point of reason and people fear things that are not going to happen to them, are very unlikely indeed.


FRAN KELLY: Let’s talk about that—whether it is amplified beyond reason or is in fact rational—because since September 11, in particular, security has become the prevailing issue in many Western countries. But these fears are founded in fact; they are founded on the 9-11 tragedy, the Bali bombings, the bombings in London and Madrid. This is not irrational, is it?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: The extent I think is irrational—the extent of that fearfulness. And if you look at the fears we should confront everyday like getting in the car and driving to work, which is the thing most likely to undo us, then we don’t put nearly enough effort perhaps into that as opposed to building walls around Parliament House and putting up bollards that stop the traffic in order to make people feel a little more secure. It’s more about seeming than reality in many of these cases.


FRAN KELLY: Let’s look at that example. Do you think we don’t need, for instance, the bollards around Parliament House? Do we not need to take protections against a potential car bombing in this country?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Well, if there is going to be such a thing then it is most likely to be on a soft target. I am not experienced in security matters but I do know that this is almost frivolous. If you look at the upstairs part of Parliament House you’ve got all this security and people have to go through scanners and the like. If anyone was really serious about it they’d simply go downstairs in the carpark. So a lot of these things don’t make sense when you look at them. They really are about, apparently, reassuring people. Having made them fearful then you’ve got to do something to appear to be doing something as Amanda Vanstone confessed some time ago.


And if you look at the reality, even with the increased number of deaths following September 11, it would take one of those a month to equal the number of deaths on the roads in the United States. And it wasn’t till the war on Iraq that the number of terrorists’ deaths—deaths from attacks—went up. In fact up to that time it had been relatively low. Terrorism has sadly been part of the landscape for a very long time and we’ve not responded to it adequately. We’ve responded by fearfulness rather than prudently trying to find out what is going on.


FRAN KELLY: Terrorism may have been around for a long time but it is relatively new in terms of its impact in this country.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: In the West, yes, and in Australia.


FRAN KELLY: So perhaps that explains why people do have this fear. You say ‘having made them fearful’ we are over-reacting in these ways. I mean, it’s that element, it’s that claim, isn’t it, of yours, ‘having made them fearful’. How do you say politicians—‘fuelled by the media’ I think is your premise—are making people fearful? Give us some examples.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: To take the starting point, if you like. We are all afraid of dying. It’s a human condition to know of our own mortality and we build up world views that in a sense protect us from that knowledge daily. If we had to stare into the abyss every moment of our lives, we’d probably be very seriously depressed so we all fear annihilation. If we are reminded of that by events like the Bali bombing, like September 11, then inevitably that makes us fearful. In one sense that’s predictable. Fear protects us to some extent but when people use those fears for other purposes, for instance to declare war on Iraq—you know, we were made to feel that they were all connected—and link them to people like asylum seekers, then that is manipulation and amplification.


I’ve looked at the Cronulla riots and it is quite clear that ‘fear of terrorism’ was what was operating there. Totally unrelated but when you force people to be fearful in a sense by linking all these things together, you force them back into narrow identities, they become more jingoistic and more likely to engage in discrimination against others. So they are the reasons I am concerned about it.


FRAN KELLY: Is it always contrived, do you believe, these politicians using fear as a weapon or sometimes is it firmly held and firmly believed? I am thinking of yesterday when Liberal MP Warren Entsch warned against allowing boat people onto the mainland of Australia—in the context of the immigration debate—because they can bring diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis. Now, in a sense that’s pretty transparent scaremongering, unless he believes it, and I’d question whether we are really susceptible to these kinds of claims. But then if we are, is it because we want to believe it in some way because, in a sense, we are programmed to be scared of difference, that it taps into something that is innate within us?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Well, I don’t know about innate but there are some ancient fears in Australia—the fears of invasion. That’s something that’s certainly done the cycles, whether it was at the end of the 19 th century with the Chinese overrunning us or the yellow peril, they seem to have been around for some time.


We’ve seen these patterns before but I’d have to say that sort of comment looks opportunistic given the fact that the government hasn’t been all that concerned about the number of illegal fishing vessels almost certainly providing something of a real risk of infection because they have been bringing animals ashore, for instance, in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. So it is that sort of disproportion that I think you look to when examining whether people are real or not. On the other hand, I think it is true that politicians are as likely to be afraid as anyone else and sometimes they will respond fearfully and encourage others to be afraid as well but sometimes it looks like manipulation.


FRAN KELLY: Is your premise that this government, the Howard government in particular, is manipulating our fears around terrorism to influence our position on, say, immigration, asylum seekers, those kinds of things?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: I think that was very clear. You know, at the time of the Tampa , we were being asked to imagine that these people could be terrorists, that it was a ‘pipeline for terrorism’ I think one of the ministers said. And we were encouraged to think of these people as ‘like the terrorists’ therefore not worthy to come into Australia. That was a definite technique and no doubt carefully researched.


FRAN KELLY: I go back to the original question, though, Carmen Lawrence, about politics and fear being long-time bedfellows and political parties of all persuasions being guilty of this. At the moment we have Labor accusing the Howard government of kowtowing to Indonesia and that being the basis for the immigration changes the government is trying to push through. Now, isn’t that designed to tap into our fears of being overrun by the populist Muslim neighbour to the north?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Well, I wouldn’t have read it that way but I guess that is a possible interpretation. I think in politics there is a fair propensity for exaggeration whether fear is at the base of it or not, and one of the important things in educating citizens is to allow them to spot that when exaggeration is at work.


I think the difference with a fear-based communication is that it taps into some very deep anxieties that we have, particularly about our own identity, about our own continuing systems and, if people sort of put their finger on that pulse, they can make people behave rather strangely and sometimes even violently.


FRAN KELLY: Given we agree that this is not a new phenomenon—it’s gone back perhaps for time immemorial—what impact do you say this is having on our society right now, in our democracy?


CARMEN LAWRENCE: I guess there is a broad fearfulness afoot. It is not just in relation to these political issues. I mean, people are afraid of pandemics and viruses. Although we are living longer and we are healthier and we are actually more secure than we’ve ever been in the….


FRAN KELLY: People are also afraid of high interest rates and they were afraid of the GST once when Paul Keating managed to make them afraid of it.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Yes, there’s insecurity abroad anyway so it feeds into that insecurity. And I think the problem is that people then I guess don’t take as much pleasure in their lives as they might. That’s one of the outcomes—that instead of getting out there, allowing their children to play in the parks, being positive about the future and solving the problems at the root, we’re reacting in ways that distort public policy. It is nowhere more evident, as I’ve said in the book as well, than in the area of crime which in some ways was the prototype for all of this, the war on crime that we’ve been having for 20 years.


FRAN KELLY: And do you think Australia is perhaps more susceptible to this because we are not a nation of great debate traditionally? You are arguing for more information and more facts here, and you say that we need a new moral dimension in our public realm.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: Yes. Politicians I think in the past used to try and appeal, at least some of the time, to people that they were about improving their lives; they were offering hope and possibilities. A lot of this now is about trying to protect them from their worst nightmares and that, unfortunately, is a very low level of debate—it’s you know, ‘I am here to protect you from the fears that I have described’ rather than ‘how can we improve the world we live in’ and most of us would want to do that in a positive way. We just don’t put the intellectual effort into that discussion and we certainly don’t put the resources in the right place as a result.


I think we should be working closely with people in the region to look at the question of indoctrination and fanaticism: how do these young men and women get to the point where they are prepared to blow other people up in a spectacular way? They are the ones who are certainly making us frightened and de-terrorised; what’s going on here? You don’t hear much discussion about that beyond the few clichés.


FRAN KELLY: Carmen Lawrence, thank you very much for joining us this morning.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: It is my pleasure, Fran.


FRAN KELLY: That is Carmen Lawrence. Her book Fear and politics is published by Scribe Books.