Fear & Loathing in Abbott’s Australia

art-353-abbott-300x0In the space of about a month, the national conversation in Australia has come to be dominated by terror. Again.

I picked up the Daily Telegraph the other day – foolishly – and counted the number of pages that were dedicated to the ‘growing terror threat’. 13 pages! 13 pages of subtly bigoted, hypochondriac garbage.

Why has Australia come to this point again?

There are three core concerns I have with this current obsession with terror: firstly, that the whole ‘Panic!’ is a complete exaggeration of the Abbott Government’s. Second, that it is giving licence for resurgent Islamophobia and racism in Australia (a back-door campaign for the ‘Right to Be A Bigot’). And finally, that it obfuscates real problems facing Australia.

I’ll come to each of these in turn.

Abbott’s Poor Polling

When Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister last year, it was absolutely pointedly a protest vote against the Labor party’s incessant leadership ructions and the inane fear campaign against the carbon pricing and ‘boat people’. His well-documented use of three word slogans doesn’t really need repeating, but the substance of the slogans “stop this”, “end that” was premised on fear of the ‘Other’ – be it invading asylum seekers or the ‘Big Other’ of the barren redhead taking your job and preventing you using the air conditioner.

None of these threats, obviously, materialised. No Asylum Seeker has committed a terrorist attack in Australia (a fact even Gerard Henderson has previously endorsed), much less successfully challenged our sovereignty (except for the boat people of 1788), and the Carbon Price was successfully reducing emissions from heavy polluting power generators while having minimal impact on our economy.

Whatever, let’s not let facts get in the way of a good scare campaign.

Point being, Abbott came to office on a platform that was based on the importance of honesty in politics: which is probably a double-irony, given the scale of the lies he was telling. All of this became clear around budget time, when the ‘unity ticket’ on schools funding went down the toilet; the ‘no cuts to the ABC’ pledge turned out to actually mean ‘cuts to the ABC’; the ‘no new taxes’ ethic – apparently a fundamental value of the Coalition’s – was betrayed with a $7 GP tax and an increase to the fuel excise, and university students were sprung with the proposed deregulation of their fees.

This isn’t the sum of it, there are infinite articles dealing with the endless broken promises of the Abbott government.

With damaging talk about the budget stretching on in the media for months, far beyond the usual period of a fortnight, Abbott needed a circuit-breaker. While Ministerial ineptitude from Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Eric Abetz and particularly George Brandis provided occasional relief from budget talk, inevitably the conversation returned to the massive inequity of the Government’s plan.

The circuit-breaker eventually came, however, in the form of ISIS. The growing movement of radical Islamists on the Syrian-Iraqi border fed into every trope Abbott wanted to exploit to his advantage: the strong, Howard-esque leader, the war on terror, the need to support our ally America, the National Security crisis, the weak cultural relativism of the Left, and the terrifying Muslim Other.

Now, National Security legislation is profoundly complex, it involves powers and abilities that deeply impact our rights and freedoms as individuals, and accordingly it should be reviewed carefully and with reasonable public oversight. Kind of like the decision to go to war.

Not so with Tony Abbott. Despite reticence from Barack Obama to commit ground troops to the conflict, from the word go Abbott was making noises in that direction – eager to commit Australian forces (more eager than the hawkish United States). Likewise, national security legislation granting vast new powers to ASIO and ASIS and other law enforcement agencies has been rushed into parliament, barely scrutinised, and announced as a necessary re-evaluation of the “delicate balance between freedom and security”.

It is the rush, the Panic! (to borrow from David Marr), the speed with which all of this is being done that provides the clue to Abbott’s intention.

There has been no incident in Australia or the broader West – no September 11 or Bali – to justify these draconian new measures. There is, to quote Obama and Abbott himself, no “specific threat” or new intelligence regarding an attack on our homelands to justify the heightened terror alert.

In fact, even placing the nation on “high” terror alert was an act of pure publicity, since there was no practical thing any individual citizen should do. Abbott exhorted us to “go about your lives as you normally would” – so what was the point of announcing the increased threat level if the expectation was that we act as though nothing had changed?

The point of the whole process was to get a poll bump – which he has – because if there is one thing the Coalition likes to fall back on, it is national security.

Resurgent Racism

The last time a Coalition Government played around with these undercurrents of fear and racism was during the Howard years. The torrent of Islamophobia that he unleashed culminated in the dreadful Cronulla Riots, where the hysteria around Muslims reached boiling point and erupted into white violence on the streets of the Sutherland Shire.

It’s so troubling to see this kind of hatred boil over because of the actions of a government. For six years under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, these racial tensions were unheard of, discussion instead turned to education, climate and economy (frankly, the sorts of issues we should be focused on – more on that later).

However, since the Abbott government came to office, there has been a steady return of simmering racial rhetoric. Partly this is to do with the bizarre desire of Abbott and Brandis to appease far-Right polemicist Andrew Bolt – a man so deluded by his own inflated ego that he can’t perceive the naked racism he uses to rile up his audience. Brandis’ truly stupid remark that people have a ‘right to be a bigot’ perhaps should have clued more of us in to the coming culture war. Pyne’s repeated calls for recognition of ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ in the Australian Curriculum (as though it weren’t extensively weaved through the document already) were nothing compared to the current assault on Islamic Australians.

Two incidents occurred near each other that marked the starting point of a return to Islam at the centre of our political debate: the pointless hysteria about a talk on ‘Honour Killings’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and Tony Abbott’s invocation of ‘Team Australia’.

With these events, the word ‘Muslim’ began to appear in the media more and more – people were once again being implored to see the strange, ‘Oriental’ culture of the Islamic Other and compare it to ‘Team Australia’. It was as though ‘Honour Killings’ – an obscure practice in far away parts of the Middle East, were a regular occurrence in Australia and that somehow the mere existence of the term would infect and radicalise people in Australia. Guy Rundle describes this notion as perceiving ideas and speech as a kind of infectious ‘bacteria’ – exposure leads to immediate contamination, the Western ‘identity’ is so weak that it cannot resist ‘Islamification’.

Naturally, the widening of the conflict with ISIS, the strengthening of national security legislation and the removal of personal liberties has only fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment.

Probably the most irritating debate that exists on social media is the tedious ‘Ban the Burqa’ movement. Despite the complaints by many, including Abbott, that fundamentalists ‘hate us for our freedom’ (American cultural imperialism is obviously so much less of a threat than Islamic), the immediate recourse in Australia seems to be to take away the very freedoms for which we are apparently hated.

I’m a huge supporter of religious freedom – as long as, obviously, those freedoms stay out of my face (and I’m particularly thinking of the Catholic Church and its positions on homosexuality, abortion and voluntary euthanasia). If I want to live in a society that tolerates and accepts others, then it stands to reason that I should do exactly that myself.

Banning the Burqa is a proxy debate for ‘banning Muslims’, and this is made evident through the silly remarks from PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie when she called for the banning of Sharia Law, despite not actually understanding what Sharia Law is. Let me provide a direct quote to capture the absurd things she is saying:

“It’s about time we faced the fact that these maniacs and depraved humans will not stop committing their cold blooded butchery and rapes until every woman in Australia wears a burka and is subservient to men.”

I’d almost have more respect for these people if they would demonstrate some actual integrity about their views and say that they really mean: “I am afraid of Muslims. I’m not sure why. They are different to me, and I don’t want them in my country.”

Now, obviously that view is fundamentally bigoted, and it opens to door to all kinds of racism and social divisiveness. We’re a better country than that, we’re a multicultural nation (and mostly successfully so), and I’m pretty sure we can get by with the tiny proportion of people wearing burqas being allowed to wear burqas and practice their faith.

Some of the most passionate calls to ban the burqa have come from people I know, people who are good people, who live on the Central Coast of New South Wales (where I live).

Why do I find this troubling? Because I have not seen someone once wearing a full burqa on the Central Coast. Not once.

The amorphous fear of the Muslim Other isn’t grounded in reality – it’s a product of a very effective, socially damaging fear campaign. Tony Abbott has created a culture of fear and loathing, and the reason he has done that is because his government is on the wrong side of history on virtually every measure.

The Real Problems

I won’t talk about the budget except to say that it profoundly smashes people on the bottom-end of the income spectrum. Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century riffs on the issue of widening inequality in much the same way as Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level did four years prior. We have a serious social issue occurring both in Australia and globally, a recent roundtable by Australia21 explored the impacts on our own country. The gap between rich and poor is growing, and the consequences of this are profound. The fracturing of social cohesion because of this leads to poorer health, poor education, lower prosperity, and higher crime. That’s across society, not just in the lower classes.

But there is an issue that dwarfs all the others, and it’s the issue that ironically brought Abbott to power and the issue on which he is failing the Australian public more than any other.

Climate Change.

The scale of the ecological crisis facing human civilisation cannot be understated. Naomi Klein’s recently published exploration of the subject sums it up perfectly: This Changes Everything.

The evidence has been pouring in for decades, the scientific consensus is overwhelming, and the threat to humanity is extreme (far, far higher than the overhyped ‘existential’ crisis of terrorists who are exhorted to throw rocks at Westerners). Obama himself recently identified Climate Change as a far greater threat than terrorism.

Putting aside for a second the successive years of record heat, we are already seeing a range of dangerous, harmful impacts on our society: extreme weather events like cyclone Yasi and the Queensland floods, out-of-control Victorian bushfires, extended droughts, extensive coral bleaching due to ocean acidification, prolonged retreat of the Arctic ice sheets, deep and dangerous melts in Antarctica, heat waves that take lives, thawing of the Siberian permafrost (triggering runaway greenhouse gas release), flooding in low-lying cities, and the potentially vast increase in ‘climate refugees’ when the Maldives and other island nations go underwater.

These are just a few of the problems we face.

Responding to these problems, as Klein explains, does not have to be a matter of self-preservation (though it is – the holocene, the period of human civilisation, has only existed for the past 10,000 years of relatively stable climate. Our agriculture cannot withstand a change of 3-4°C). There are opportunities to be gained from de-carbonising our economy.

Opportunities like, for example, reducing our reliance on Oil from the Middle East, thus enabling the West to untangle itself from the conflicts that occur there thanks to Capital’s aggravating influence. An Australian and American withdrawal from the oil-rich Arab nations, while obviously not resolving the deep-seated ethnic tensions, will go some way to alleviating the threat of fundamentalist violence to our own nations.

Because ultimately, the wars we have involved ourselves in since Vietnam have largely been fought over finance and energy – Iraq is the absolute exemplar for that. As the sunniest continent on the planet, there is no reason why Australia cannot make the switch to a renewable energy economy, contribute massively to the global project to save the climate, and also provide jobs and security for future generations.

Why won’t Abbott do that? Because that requires a politics of hope – and he is incapable of the politics of hope. He only knows how to do fear, and the only fear he knows how to exploit is that which divides Australians against one another.

So. The moral to this extended rant?

Don’t buy the war on terror again. It’s trash. It’s divisive. And we have far bigger problems to fix.

If Abbott truly cared about Australia’s security, he’d be doing something about Climate Change, and he’d be promoting social cohesion, rather than exacerbating it.

He just wants your vote because you’re afraid. Don’t be afraid. And don’t vote out of fear – advocate for a politics of hope, and vote for somebody who offers it.

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