I think it was anthropologist Ghassan Hage who once said that Australians are in constant fear of their country being stolen — again. Australia has a history of policy-making based on the fear of the outsider. But of all the acts of government based on that fear the new Home Affairs portfolio of Peter Dutton will rank as one of the most dangerous.
It combines ASIO with Australian Border Force, Australian Federal Police, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Office of Transport Authority, concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of a peacetime federal minister. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called it a decision to meet the evolving threat of terrorism.
“We can’t take an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to security arrangements,” Turnbull said, “not least because our adversaries are agile and nimble, constantly adapting and evolving to defeat our defences ... As terrorists evolve their methods, we have to evolve our responses.”
This is a rather refined way of saying that we don’t really know who our enemy is and in fact we don’t even know if we have an enemy, but we want you to trust us as we watch and stalk you closer than ever before. Trusting the government is a dangerous thing at the best of times, but it is especially so if we are to accept a measure that is patently an attempt to increase our sense of insecurity.
It is a measure largely in sync with the concerns of other Western countries, notably Britain and the US, which feel assailed by and under siege from domestic and international terrorism. Australia is joining the party even though there is little to warrant such drastic measures. A few highly dramatised raids with a few real “terrorists” do not amount to a threat serious enough to warrant a super ministry.
Turnbull seems to think that we need to remain one step ahead of the enemy. But who exactly is the enemy?
Even though terrorism is mentioned, it seems the “adversary” is not simply ISIS-inspired terrorists. In the general discourse on terrorism in the media and in government circles the adversary is generally perceived in more nebulous terms, but almost always as external to the Australian society, culture and value system. Even when the terrorism is home-grown it is considered alien to Australia, an un-Australian act.
The effect is to create a sense of a dark, amorphous entity that threatens the spiritual, cultural and political values of the country. Dark is the key word here; the threat is perceived as “foreign” and foreign not only to Australia but also to Australia’s western, “white” way of life. Identities such as “Islamic” and “Middle Eastern” are subsumed in this image of the threatening foreigner, always ready to be pulled out at will and then slipped back in the faceless dark mass.
This is not a new fear. Australians have always been conscious of their isolation as a white outpost in Asia, surrounded by the teeming Asian millions. Each new wave of migration, particularly from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, has rekindled this fear.
What is new is that the threatening outsider is now perceived to be far more deadly than in the past, due to the “popularity” of Islamic terror plots and the Apex gang, thanks to the Murdoch media.
This is the threat Turnbull wants to tackle with his super ministry by concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of his minister. The stated aim is to keep us safe by preparing Australia to face the “evolving” threat. But in reality it is little more than an attempt to tap into the enduring fears of mainstream Australia and make Australians believe that they are under threat from evil, external forces.
Islamic terrorism is only one of them. It can be anyone the government feels it is in its interest to demonise — Africans or asylum seekers — as long as they can be conveniently marginalised and externalised from mainstream Australia. Remember, the adversary is “constantly evolving”.
It is interesting that the new security measures have come in the wake of the proposed citizenship test that seeks to define an Australian citizen in terms acceptable to the Anglo Australians. Our “adversary” is “evolving” but we are not willing to concede that this country and its social and cultural fabric have also evolved in the last 100 years.
It is also significant that in the new portfolio immigration is bracketed with security. Immigration, the process that has contributed so much to the cultural, social and spiritual richness of this country, is now a threat. And fearing the outsider has become government policy.
Far from countering a credible threat, the ministry, I believe, is this government’s way of using irrational fears in the community to consolidate its power over its traditional voter base and to woo the Coalition voters who are likely to defect to extreme right-wing parties and groups. It’s a way of reassuring mainstream Australians that the government is escalating its drive against terrorism.
And far from increasing our security, it is only likely to increase our fears and paranoia as we learn to view the outsider with greater suspicion. As our enemy evolves so will our fear, as many Australians will believe the government’s rhetoric, ably bolstered by Murdoch columnists and editors.
Few would bother to think that the real security threat to this country comes from the demonisation and marginalisation of minorities and the wars that spawn masses of destitute people, wars in which Australia is playing its own shameful part. Such considerations are too troublesome for many people, as dealing with them requires action on their part, to campaign, to persuade and to participate. It is much easier to let the media tell you what to think and let the government do what it thinks is best for you.
And the government assures us that there are checks and balances in all this and that the super ministry will not lead to abuses. And there are those who tell us we live in civilised times now and in our day and age, especially in our part of the “civilised” world, the likes of Nazism or Fascism can never occur.
But we also remember that a few years ago the horrors of Manus Island and Nauru were considered unthinkable and that the emergence of neo-Nazi street movement was laughable. We are wiser now. And we would be foolish to wait till Dutton’s new powers begin to bite to realise how close we have come to a full-blown police state.