Looking from abroad at the statements of the Australian government regarding security, one would be forgiven for thinking the country had just suffered a 9/11 scale attack or was currently engaged in a war for its very survival. The country’s hard right Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has over the past six months employed increasingly shrill and fearful language to address the threat posed by terrorism and the Daesh in particular.
The government’s increasing use of such loaded language began last year, in the months after the release of its first Federal Budget. The Government had fought its election campaign around the issues of illegal immigrants and the budget deficit, with the latter in particular being spoke of as a “debt and deficit disaster” or a “budget emergency” by Abbott and party generals.
After painting such a dire picture for the Australian public, the new government believed its first Federal Budget would be accepted as tough but necessary medicine for fixing this problem. Yet for all the fear mongering about the state of the economy, the actual measures contained in the budget
seemed contradictory, only targeting the poorest and the most vulnerable in society, whilst the conditions for wealthier Australians largely remained unchanged and in some cases were even promising to improve. Worse still, the cuts included in this lopsided budget featured included a raft of things Abbott had explicitly promised not to do in areas like welfare and renewable energy.
As a result, Tony Abbott and his Ministers spent several months getting battered in the polls, with their budget increasingly becoming a byword for debates around fairness and inequality in the country and the disconnectedness of Abbott with ordinary Australians.
After several failed attempts to reframe the budget debate on their own terms, the Abbott government seemingly gave up on its claims on the importance of the deficit and economic management in general, in effect making a tactical retreat on the issue.
Abbott’s position was weakening rapidly all the same, and just eighteen months into his first term, the problems created by this first budget and a series of other embarrassing and ideologically driven decisions on peripheral issues had caused an increasing rift within his own party.
Indeed, in a demonstration of just how weak his position was fast becoming, Mr Abbott caused his very suitability for leadership to be challenged over what might seem to outsiders like a relatively harmless decision; the awarding of a Knighthood to The Queen of Great Britain’s 94 year old consort, Prince Phillip on, January 25th of this year.
Abbott’s party had long been aware of his fervent admiration of the British Monarchy, but for him to have indulged this idolatry amidst hemorrhaging support for the party called into question his capacity to lead.
Such views would only become more firm, when days later, a first term Liberal-National Government lost power in Queensland in one of the biggest swings against a party in Australian electoral history. The reasons for this loss were numerous, but many in the party felt Tony Abbott’s decision to knight a member of the British Royal family that was famous for his racist gaffs, was an example of increasing dysfunction within the Prime Minister’s office and that his decisions were undermining the party’s wider brand.
As the fallout from the Queensland election continued, panic spread within the party and just 9 days later, factions within the party organised what is known in Australian politics as a “leadership spill” motion. This is essentially a vote of no confidence in the party’s leader that, if successful, declares
the position vacant. No direct challenger appeared to face Mr Abbott, weakening the motion somewhat as it lacked a clear alternative, but he still only scraped through 61 votes to 39 – a result that is significantly worse than it sounds because Mr Abbott’s 30 Cabinet Ministers were obligated to support him.
Fighting for survival
It is within this context that Abbott made the decision to reimagine himself as a strong-man of national security. It was a logical choice for Abbott; he had no nation building initiatives to champion like Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN), or even any clear vision for the future of the country more broadly. Moreover, he understood the public viewed Labor as weak in that area.
The shift in focus had already begun last year; in September Abbott had started labelling Daesh/ISIS as a “death cult.” Attempting to simplify complex issues with catchy and dumbed down phrases has long been a hall mark of Abbott, and he clearly thought he was onto something here. In the months
following the budget retreat – from September 2014 until May 2015 he was recorded having referred to Daesh in this way 346 times.
But within weeks of surviving the spill motion, Abbott ramped up his security focus. He addressed the parliament on national security on February 23rd, warning the country was facing a “long-term era of terror” due to the activities of the far flung Islamic State, and announced there would be an overhaul of the country’s alert systems.
Following on from this, the Abbott government announced in May that it would seek to amend the Citizenship Act so that dual nationals could be stripped of their Australian citizenship if they were found to be promoting, supporting or taking part in terrorism.
The proposal initially was designed so that such decisions would be made at the discretion of the Minister, prompting the Labor party to urge caution, lest the government risk granting excessive powers that could be abused. Abbott ultimately softened the proposal to essentially reflect the current
provisions in the Citizenship Act that allow for dual nations joining foreign militaries to be stripped of their citizenship so that it also applied to terrorist organisations.
But on a political level, Abbott achieved his goal of making his government appear tough and cast doubt on the opposition. Indeed, the Victorian branch of the Liberal party wasted no time capitalising on this, and had already begun sending out fundraising material to its supporters stating that “Labor and the left are … weakening our borders and are a soft touch on home grown terrorists.”
Not long after this, Mr Abbott’s own rhetoric regarding the threat posed by Daesh reached fever pitch, when he told delegates at the first day of a regional summit on extremism that the group was “coming … for every person and every government with a simple message, submit or die.”
The decision to paint a militia like Daesh, a group with only loose control of limited territory in a heavily fractured region, as though it were a threat comparable to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany sounds ridiculous to anyone even mildly informed on their actual capabilities. But the intended audience of these comments was never the actual attendees of the regional summit they were delivered to. Rather, they were delivered so the Australian media would relay them to an increasingly fearful Australian public, one whose image of Daesh has been warped by the constant reporting of their brutal methods.
By employing such frightening rhetoric and putting forward hard line anti-terror measures, Abbott is attempting to paint a binary view of the world in which compromise and context can be ignored, and opposing viewpoints can be dismissed as being either “soft” on terrorism or even “sympathising” with it.
This is not to suggest there is no threat of course; like most countries, Australia does need to be diligent in the face Daesh’s globally targeted propaganda campaign and it remains a group that needs to be defeated. But in the battle the Abbott government is currently engaged, Daesh has
become as much a tool in its armoury as it is a threat to be defeated. The mention of the “death cult” has made them a convenient bogey-man and is being trawled out at every opportunity to remind the public they need the Abbott government if they want to keep safe.
Whether the Australian public will buy this remains an open question until the next election.