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Be afraid … and vote for John Howard

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 7 January 2003


The federal government's 'anti-terror' publicity campaign, which is to cost the taxpayer multimillions of dollars, is a cynical scam designed to enhance John Howard's leadership position and ensure another Coalition government in the next election. The fearful reaction of Australians after September 11 and Bali is not in proportion to the real threat of terrorism, but it serves the direct interests of the mass media and the Howard government and they will try to perpetuate it.

Over the Christmas break almost 40 Australians - many of them young - were killed and hundreds injured in horrific circumstances. In all likelihood, 2004 will see hundreds more dead and thousands more injured. The costs of all this carnage and damage to property will run to hundreds of millions of dollars. Just like last year and preceding years.

The cause of this ongoing catastrophe is road accidents. As bad as they are, we simply accept this mayhem as part of modern automotive life. There are no vested political interests to be served by trying to do something about it. Even eminently sensible ideas like speed governors on cars or restrictions on young drivers are ignored. So at any time virtually any of us could become victims of this gruesome juggernaut.

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In contrast, 88 Australians die and many are injured in a Bali explosion, and suddenly the whole nation is obsessed with danger and everyone is afraid. The fear is almost palpable as the mass media constantly rewind the Bali atrocity and keep the pot boiling with related stories.

And now the Howard government launches a campaign of 'awareness' of terrorism. Prime Minister Howard says not to be afraid, but the whole message is exactly the opposite. In the next few months we will be saturated with warnings designed to keep us nervous, and the campaign will itself provide fresh material to keep the media on topic.

The harsh facts are that preventing terrorists from getting weapons of mass destruction can only happen if the nations of the world, and especially the United States, accept the need for serious international and reciprocal control measures. It is a problem that must be dealt with at the global level. Making everyone in Australia nervous about everyone else (and inevitably making life tough for people of Middle Eastern appearance) will make little or no difference if terrorists do get such weapons and get them past the official security systems (like customs). Global cooperation and effective security measures in vulnerable situations by professionals are the real answers to preventing disasters - not turning everyone into a spy.

The public awareness campaign is a cynical manipulation of public opinion of a sort we have not seen since Howard's hero, Robert Menzies, played the 'reds under the beds' card in the 1950s. It links some of Howard's favourite themes - fear of other cultures, unquestioning acceptance of US leadership, nationalistic militarism, and the need for increased policing powers - to maintain a sense of tension that will keep Howard in power.

There are of course deep ideological roots to the campaign. Fear has always been the core emotion of political conservatism - fear of other cultures, other nations, other classes, the other gender … Fearful people seek strong leaders; tough men who will take the necessary measures and protect the fearful from their supposed enemies. It is the oldest political manoeuvre in the book.
When fear rules, the world becomes a black-and-white place, with no shades of grey and with no room for questions or alternative viewpoints. In particular, questioning the leadership becomes not only unacceptable but actually treasonous. This insidious idea is already creeping into the national discourse (recall Foreign Minister Downer's likening Simon Crean to Saddam Hussein).

Such a situation perfectly suits a man like John Howard. Rigid, limited, patriarchal, old fashioned, Howard's inability to see validity in other ways of thinking, other ways of living, all seem to become strengths as he stands strong against the heinous foe.

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But it cannot last. People get bored with being afraid, and then they want to move on. And it might be ideal for Howard, who is stuck in a Cold War mentality, but it is not so great for the Liberals who must sooner or later shift back towards the centre as the economy and environmental and social change demand it. There are few people with Howard's personal commitment to such trenchantly conservative politics in the Liberal Party, and no one with genuine leadership potential. Peter Costello, for instance, is an altogether much more considerate (dare one say 'intellectual' ) person, and his leadership would be more balanced.

Furthermore, Howard's unswerving support for the hard-line Bush administration will come under growing pressure. In all probability the American people, or at least the decision-making elites of that nation, will eventually come to see the inherent limitations of the Bush administration's new imperialism. They will see the costs to personal liberty of growing surveillance, the cost to the governing institutions of runaway techno-militarism, and most of all, they will see the cost to global commerce as it suffocates under the blanket of the new global police order.

Howard clearly spends plenty of time mulling over his role in history, much to Costello's chagrin. But he will not be seen by history as the great leader that saved us in our hour of need, like Curtin, and certainly not a leader, like Curtin, who stood up to the dominant global power to pursue Australia's direct interests. He will instead be seen as a calculating ideologue who exploited a specific, but long understood, political development to entrench himself in his leadership when he had little else to offer.

The world will move on from this phase of fear, because it has to, and Howard, along with George W. Bush, will be seen as vestiges of the brutal 20th century that lingered into the 21st century - a century when a whole new set of problems demanding a whole new set of solutions became apparent. Terrorism does not really threaten civilisation, but global warming does.

Australians will play their part as good global citizens in the properly constructed and maintained institutions of global governance. And we will deal at last with those real threats to national security, like salinity. Who knows - we might even decide to do something about the road toll…

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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