Six furled Australian flags all but upstaged the Prime Minister, in a finely judged setting as he mustered all the statesmanly gravitas available to him by place and occasion, when he took the podium at AFP headquarters in Canberra on Monday to make the most of his hugely over-promoted occasion to ‘deliver’ a national security statement.
Short of donning Menzies’ eyebrows or the power-walking trackie daks of his predecessor, mentor, fellow khaki-tragic and man of steel, John Howard, Abbott’s presentation and choice of venue left no stone unturned. Bugger the parliament. His statement was too big for the conventional venue; his mission too lofty to be spoiled with shots of an ugly, uncooperative Opposition, however bipartisan they might be on national security.
Abbott chose instead a much more impressive theatre equipped with quasi-military Federal Police insignia. He set a Personal Best for flag counts and power bills. The atmosphere, like the lighting was electric. You could almost feel a national conversation brewing. Every member of the audience eagerly anticipated having needs and expectations met. His stage management was spectacular.
Abbott stepped up and out as our nation’s defender. Supporters waiting with bated breath were to be not to be let down by their plucky little battler’s public appearance and his words were perfectly pitched to them.
Straight up, Abbott let it be known that he will never be played for a mug. He presented himself as a leader who, despite his worrying domestic and foreign affairs record so far and his historical unpopularity with voters is a man of action. He is not going to muck around with the Daish death-cult or any other terrorists. He would triumph, he implied, by his bearing, his flags and his oratory, over overwhelming odds. There was a touch of Gallipoli spirit and more; a backs-to-the-wall, last ditch attempt meets shirt-front in the tone from a PM unafraid to lead with his chin.
Others found his speech disquieting. Abbott used the occasion to promote ‘Australia’s fight against terror,’ a seriously flawed conception of contemporary terror, its causes and its circumstances. He announced a crack-down on dole-bludging, overseas-Jihad-joining Australian citizenship, as if home-grown terrorists were not the issue. He promised tougher penalties on hate speech in a flip flop with his earlier opposition to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Finally, he told Australian Muslim leaders to lift their game if they were fair dinkum about Islam being a religion of peace. Each element of the speech may be seen as contentious while those who follow the PM for his capacity to make gaffes, quickly awarded him a perfect score.
In ‘Australia’s fight against terror,’ Abbott offered a simplistic misrepresentation of a complex phenomenon. We are ‘at war with terror’ according to his loose rhetorical analogy, yet, as with the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on poverty, and other such historic formulations, the campaign is conceptually flawed.
‘Australia’s fight against terror’ is a meaningless phrase. Terror is a tactic or a strategy, not a person, state or organisation. Fight against terror, moreover, gives a misleading image of a unified enemy awaiting to be defeated only by a military means. As with last week’s White House summit on ‘violent extremism’, at which AG George Brandis represented us, we are defeated by such wilful imprecision.
Abbott hopes his war scenario will sway ‘ordinary Australian’ listeners to give him their support, support which the nation has increasingly withheld or withdrawn because it doesn’t trust him or his government’s policies. It is not an unreasonable hunch. Ironically, however, part of Abbott’s problem is precisely his reductive, oversimplification of issues: his preference for talking in bumper sticker slogans; his overreliance on the banal. Some commentators dismiss Abbott’s tactical discourse as evidence of low intelligence, however it must be seen for what it is, a conscious strategy from a politician who would rather appear simple and earnest than, God forbid, too intellectual.
The PM chooses to present himself as a plain-spoken man whose black and white reductive formulations will resonate with plain-spoken voters too challenged by the exigencies of modern existence or other factors beyond their control to embrace depth or complexity in news or current events. It’s very close to the pitch of the shock jock and the tabloid with whom the PM and his government are closely allied but it has proved a two-edge sword. Whilst it reinforces the prejudices of the converted it alienates all others. Underestimating the intelligence of the average voter or appearing to underestimate it is a fatal error for Abbott or any other Australian political figure.
Australians are more than intelligent enough to see that the government’s promise to make it tough for home-grown Jihadists to stay at home contradicts the nation’s recent UN pledge to do all it can to staunch the flow of foreign fighters. The electorate has no problem, moreover, understanding that presenting terrorism as a type of border protection matter ignores the burgeoning growth of the home-grown terrorists educated in extremism by readily available online material.
First comes profound disconnectedness and alienation amidst young Muslim Australians. This paves the way for indoctrination. Sadly this marginalising has accelerated with the formulation of the war on terror. There is every reason to believe that the PM’s speech on security will continue to have the opposite effect. Already his public chiding of them for not doing enough about extremism has caused expressions of outrage from Muslim leaders. Muslim leaders say his statement is the “last card” of an embattled leader who is using dog-whistle politics to “inflame racism”.
It is expecting too much of the public to expect it to believe that tinkering with citizenship will diminish rather than merely frustrate radicalised, under-privileged members of marginalised groups. Intervention must begin much earlier. Yet with the divisive tone embraced by the PM, in calling out Australian leaders of Islam to speak out in condemning violence he has surely forfeited much needed support and played into the hands of those who feel persecuted or singled out.
The backlash will not revive Abbott’s waning political career as he or his advisors may have hoped. More importantly, it is not good for our nation, a nation which embraces tolerance and multiculturalism with far greater success than almost any other.
In the end, the PM’s ‘important statement’ on Monday reveals more about his desperation to shore up his own failing leadership through the politics of division and fear than his capacity to lead Australians to a more enduring harmony, stability and security. It will provide a means to further alienate those within our Muslim and Arab communities whom he needs to reassure. He reveals himself as being prepared to sacrifice the greater public good for the sake of his own survival.