Tony Abbott’s security speech shows him already reaching for the last trick in the conservative playbook. By Mike Seccombe.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s new leadership plan: panic

Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivers his security address at AFP headquarters.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivers his security address at AFP headquarters.

Australia’s national terrorist threat level remained unchanged at high this week. The prime ministerial alarm level, however, rose dramatically to six flags.

When making a speech or giving a media conference in the “blue room” of parliament, or in the prime minister’s courtyard, the leader of the day traditionally appears with an Australian flag either side.

Decorum requires no more and nor do the TV cameras. Any extras would be out-of-shot anyway.

But two flags were not enough for Tony Abbott’s national security statement on Monday. There were six. They were brought in for the occasion – impeccably, identically draped, too, each with the big seven-pointed star of the Commonwealth facing the audience. Whoever the prime ministerial flag wrangler is, they are really on their game.

The usual parliamentary venues were not good enough, either. And so the event was staged at the headquarters of the Australian Federal Police. The podium bore the star insignia of the AFP. The audience was stacked with senior people from the federal police, the Australian Defence Force, the spy agency ASIO, and representatives of other security and law enforcement agencies.

The optics of order and patriotism were perfectly contrived for the prime minister’s purpose: to create the impression of authority. All the better then that he was out of Parliament House. There, it is plain now to all, his authority is crumbling.

His poll numbers are inexorably sliding, his party colleagues are leaking against him and increasingly inclined to look to a new leader. His aggressive and erratic displays in the parliament bespeak his panic.

And so on Monday Abbott adopted the time-honoured tactic of the panicked conservative leader. He sought to panic others into supporting him. 

Sixteen times in his statement he invoked the word “threat”. He described that threat, posed by the Islamist “death cult” (seven repetitions), in the most graphic ways.

Against this danger he offered seven times to keep us “safe”. The word “secure” or its variants also came up seven times; “protect” or its variants five times.

Abbott offered more than rhetoric, of course. He flagged a number of measures, ranging from the eminently sensible – the appointment of a national counterterrorism co-ordinator to harmonise the operations of the various police and intelligence agencies – to the largely symbolic – the cancellation of welfare payments to individuals “assessed to be a threat to security”.

Exactly what the latter meant was unclear. Would it apply only to those who had left the country to fight, or is it going to be applied more broadly to people who come up on security agencies’ radars as potential bad guys? It was not explained further. But Abbott did solemnly inform his audience: “This is not window dressing”.

“As of last September, 55 of the 57 Australian extremists then fighting with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq had been on welfare,” he said.

The implication was that it was not bad enough that these people were party to the beheadings, mass executions, crucifixions and sexual slavery, as he had previously catalogued; they were also dole bludgers.

Between these extremes of sensible and risible policy, there were only a few other initiatives, all of which raise awkward issues.

“Today,” said Abbott, “I am announcing that the government will look at new measures to strengthen immigration laws, as well as new options for dealing with Australian citizens who are involved in terrorism. 

“The government will develop amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that we can revoke or suspend Australian citizenship in the case of dual nationals.”

Britain, France and Canada have already taken similar action, and the same criticism applies here as in those places: it dumps our problem on other countries far less well resourced to deal with it.

More problematic was Abbott’s next announcement, that the government was examining the prospect of “suspending some of the privileges of citizenship” for Australian nationals deemed to be involved in terrorism. This could include restricting their ability to leave or return to Australia, and their access to consular services overseas, he said.

The civil liberties concerns inherent in stopping people from leaving are one thing; preventing their return is quite another. Would we leave them stateless?

By what legal process would we determine them unfit to return? Would we give up the notion that they might be de-radicalised and rehabilitated? Would we deny consular assistance to someone charged with terrorism by a Middle Eastern non-democracy?

The questions raised are many and complex; Abbott’s answers are none.

Then there was his declaration that the government would move to further limit freedom of speech. Or, as Abbott put it, take “action against hate preachers”.

“Organisations and individuals blatantly spreading discord and division, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, should not do so with impunity,” he told his much-uniformed audience.

The government would bring forward “stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred,” he said.

The dark irony of this was best summed up by Fairfax Media’s national security correspondent, David Wroe.

“For most of recent memory,” Wroe wrote on Tuesday, “the Coalition wanted to loosen such limits on free speech by watering down Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.”

The prime minister was “sending a signal to the Muslim community that six months ago the government wanted to increase free speech for the general community and now it wants to curb free speech for Muslims. This will only increase the sense among Muslims that they are being singled out.”

As well it might. Last year Attorney-General George Brandis memorably told the senate: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know.” But only, it now appears, if they are government-friendly bigots. Abbott’s mention of Hizb ut-Tahrir only serves to emphasise that perception.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is a Muslim fundamentalist organisation that supports the establishment of a caliphate, a theocracy governed by sharia law. It is an organisation of religious bigots, but on the available evidence, non-terrorist bigots.

No less an authority than former Howard government immigration minister Philip Ruddock said as much back in 2005, when he refused to ban it. He cited ASIO advice that Hizb ut-Tahrir was “not known to have planned, assisted in or fostered any violent acts”.

That remains the case today.

It also remains the case that the more ideologically consistent elements on the conservative side of politics, including the Institute of Public Affairs and some of Abbott’s own MPs, remain opposed to further limits on the right to free speech. Or, if you prefer, they remain committed to the right to be a bigot.

The content of Abbott’s address was not the most important issue here. It was the tone rather than the individual initiatives – insubstantial and half-baked as some of them were – that was the most significant thing about it.

Many of the more perceptive political commentators came to the same conclusion: the primary function of Abbott’s address was to frighten people.

In the speech’s absence of detail and Abbott’s refusal to answer questions, said Guardian Australia’s Lenore Taylor, Abbott left the impression that his main purpose was to deliver a “rhetorical warning … about the ‘rising dangers’, the ‘ominous signs’ and the ‘new dark age’ ”.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher posed a rhetorical question: “… is it a prime minister’s job to engender fear among his people? Isn’t that the terrorists’ job?” He went on to accuse Abbott of committing “the very sin that he damns in others” by “blatantly spreading discord and division” among the populace.

So why would our prime minister give a speech apparently intended not to promote reasoned debate about solutions but to stir negative emotions? Because fearful people are more politically conservative. Science tells us so.

Psychologists have long chronicled the differences in attitudes between those on the left and right of politics, and political operatives have long exploited them. In recent years an increasing convergence between social and medical science is unravelling a biological basis to this.

Peter Hatemi, of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Sydney, is by virtue of his eclectic academic qualifications in political science, genetics, psychology and psychiatry uncommonly qualified in this area of convergent science. Hatemi once told me of research suggesting that people see, hear and smell the world differently according to their political bent. He ticked off some psychological traits.

“People on the social left tend to be more open to new experiences. People on the economic left tend to be more neurotic. People on the social right tend to be more closed-minded, more focused on out-groups, more authoritarian, more militant, punitive and retribution-minded.”

Researchers have found they can predict with reasonable accuracy a subject’s political leanings by sliding them into an MRI machine, giving them certain cues, and watching which parts of the brain light up.

Among progressives, there is more activity in the region of the brain more relevant to analytical thinking and to processing data. Conservatives show more activity in the areas of the brain concerned with memory and emotion, particularly the right amygdala, which is associated with anger and fear, and which is activated as part of the “fight or flight” response.

This doesn’t mean our political affiliations are predetermined or permanently fixed. As Hatemi said, “… what we encounter in our environment is going to modify that, because humans are supremely adaptive”.

But it does mean that people can be politically manipulated in accordance with particular inherent traits. The relevant point is not so much that conservative people are more fearful, but that fearful people are more conservative.

Sociologists refer to out-groups, meaning social groups with which one doesn’t identify. And Rob Brooks, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New South Wales, says: “One of the most substantive traits of conservatism is out-group fear.” 

For most of human history, there was a relevant basis for this, Brooks says. Often when our ancient forebears saw strangers “it meant trouble was afoot”. Of course, it also presented the opportunity for useful alliances.

And this brings us back to Abbott’s speech, which focused entirely on the undeniable trouble afoot, the threat presented by a few hundred Australian Islamists. It made no gesture at all towards the most useful alliance that we could form, with the half-million other Muslims in Australia who do not support what he consistently and theatrically calls the “death cult”.

Indeed, he appeared to go out of his way to cause offence.

“I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’,” he said. “I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”

The first part of that sentence is contestable. Did he not see the Muslim leaders gathered in sorrow at Martin Place after the Lindt cafe siege? Did he not read their universal condemnations of Man Haron Monis, which ran even in his favoured newspaper, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph?

But the last three words of the sentence, “and mean it”, were indefensible. Their implication was that even when Muslim leaders did express their desire for peace and their abhorrence of Islamist terrorists, they were not sincere.

This is more than provocative. It is dangerous to the very national security Abbott purports to protect. 

As the former head of ASIO, David Irvine, said last year, our “strongest defence against violent extremism lies within the Australian Muslim community itself”.

Given the tone of Abbott’s speech last Monday, it seems entirely reasonable to ask whether his primary concern was national security, or his job security.

He sought, with his six flags, his martial props and his bellicose delivery, to restore his failing authority. He succeeded in presenting an image of flailing authoritarianism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Prime minister’s new plan: panic".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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