The Politics of Fear
It is well accepted there are few stronger motivators of human behaviour than fear. This is not news to people who exercise power and control. From time immemorial fear has been used by power brokers and politicians to manipulate and control public opinion.
Those in the Christian community know that fear and love are opposites. The former feeds on negativity, the latter on positive energy. As light banishes darkness so love banishes fear. I know this to be true, but I also know that for those whose lives have been conditioned by fear, the banishing of it is no simple matter. What is true for individuals can also be true of nations. If the body politic of a nation has become fear based and largely irrational, it can prove very difficult to change. Decisions become routinely fear based rather than based on fact and good policy.
This is not to say fear is not real, it is. Sadly, the widespread presence of domestic violence is one reason why far too many people live with genuine fear. When the cause of fear is personal and immediate, individuals measure the risk and the options available, and act accordingly. In the case of fear generated by serious illness, sufferers seek skilled advice from an expert in the field and opt for the course that is most suitable for them.
On a mass scale, fear operates rather differently. Usually the reason for the fear is not immediate, it comes as whispered rumour, reinforced by media story that loves to exaggerate the negative. It reaches a point when, with saturated coverage, it is assumed to be correct. It is easy to build fear through unfounded insinuation and inuendo. President Trump is a maestro of fear manipulation. According to him, only he has been able to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems while the reality is, he has ignited a cauldron of possible national and international disruption
Some years ago, there was considerable fear of a bird flu pandemic, on a scale that might have replicated 1919. What was required was not simply an adequate store of vaccine, but hard information. Hard information and analysis of that information considerably placated the fear and gave people, especially in Asia, helpful data upon which to change behaviour.
Over the last 24 hours debate and argument in the federal parliament emanated from concern for the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus and Nauru; but it has quickly become the pursuit of political advantage and leverage, nourished through the fiction or fact of Australia’s border security.
‘Children overboard’ and the Tampa affair won the 2001 election for John Howard. That later evidence showed ‘children overboard’ to be a fabricated lie, did not alter the political victory, won as a result of this deception.
So many falsehoods or outright lies are currently being canvassed in the public arena about the asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus and Nauru. Are we seriously to believe the 1000 detainees are so sick that they would be immediately evacuated to Australia? If so, this is surely a terrible indictment upon the federal Government’s care of these vulnerable people. When Christopher Pyne faced this question from Barry Cassidy on Insiders last Sunday, his obfuscation and high dudgeon must rank, even for him, as one of the most bizarre political performances he has so far conjured up. That Richard Di Natale and Bob Brown would sign them all in, is hardly possible given they are no longer registered as medical practitioners.
Why should this legislation restart the people smuggling trade any more than moving more than 1000 to the US, or moving all the children off the Islands has done?
The Prime Minister’s announcement that he intends to immediately reopen the detention centre on Christmas Island together with his insistence that caring for the health and wellbeing of sick detainees will reopen the people smuggling trade is nothing less than an invitation to them to do this very thing. One cannot help but assume that, to make his point, he intends to instruct border force authorities to let a boat or two through, so ludicrous and dangerous has the whole matter become.
Why has it got to this? Since Tony Abbott became leader of the then Opposition and subsequently rose to become Prime Minister, Australian politics has become incurably binary. Good policy in service of Australia and its people is no longer the primary aim of parliament, retaining or gaining power is the primary aim, along with the crushing and humiliation of opposition. The dispatch box is no longer the place from which big ideas are contested, it is the place where party ideology is ruthlessly and uncompromisingly promoted and defended. There is absolutely no place for paradox in parliament, let alone compromise.
Those of us who are steeped in the Christian tradition know well that truth is seldom singular, it is most often paradox, it is seldom choosing between opposites, but embracing opposites. It is not, ‘this or that, but, ‘this and that’. Australia and Australians should never have had to choose between ‘secure borders’ and compassion for those in need. Our treatment of asylum seekers has been utterly shameful. Equally shameful has been the attempt to silence those who have informed us. It can never be ok to make one group of people suffer in order to satisfy a cause somewhere else, especially if that cause is nine tenths political. Those trapped for the last five plus years have become pawns in another cause, left to languish, to rot; as if somehow the safety of all Australians depends upon their suffering.
The parliamentary figure to rise above others in this context has been the speaker of the House, Tony Smith. He deserves the accolade of the nation for being what the speaker is supposes to be, an impartial umpire.
If as a result of debate and resolution in our parliament over the last 24 hours people smugglers begin again to ply their trade with a successful landing on Australian offshore territory, the blame must not be sheeted home to the legislation, but to a Prime Minister who is dangerously playing the fear card and virtually daring (inviting) the smugglers to come. Even if it is the only card in his pack, for the sake of the current asylum seekers and for the sake of Australian commitment to compassion, he should not play that card.
Although not official, we are already in the campaign for the next federal election. It seems clear that fear is going to be the primary card played. It behoves all Australians to weigh the facts that lie behind the card. Was it ever likely that a leg of lamb would cost $100 because of an emissions trading scheme? – No. Is it inevitable that renewables will turn the lights off and make electricity too expensive for any other than the wealthy? – No. The evidence is the reverse. Can Australia act in a moral and compassionate manner and still retain secure borders – Yes.