Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent
weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that
this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent
budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by
punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and
head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be
forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s
fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to
appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy
are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.
Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity,
painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince
Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them
from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony
Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.
If national security is so important that it has prompted an address
to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back
to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely
forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem
worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.
When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he
is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them,
generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity
for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the
victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks
the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us
that he is keeping us safe.
An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers,
however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant
failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no
breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system.
There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific
events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any
measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on
preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes
crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the
words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference
into people’s everyday lives.
A Message from the PM
Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man
Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”.
It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker,
died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as
he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the
address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.
Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure”
as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a
joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The
report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some
actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are
often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the
recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In
effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an
announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the
government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take
strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.
We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when
Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next
Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.
“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our
country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt
at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of
the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink.
And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have
When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of
the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not
been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail
and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example
he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe
event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home
constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential
jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been
quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by
The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.
Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the
time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He
was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder
of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency
charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]
There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia,
and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding
“extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the
West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place
in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his
act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.
Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was
denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied,
though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.
Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have
already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So
what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make
Australians still safer?
The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and
Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they
intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of
these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border
protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing
their Centrelink entitlements?
It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago
on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family
ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he
received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013.
Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the
The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious
extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead,
they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury
goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps
triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in
Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities
by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police
How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a
planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and
instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the
last six months, and on Australian soil?
The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is
the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message,
the inference is clear:
that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be
laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election
rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.
The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as
bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more
Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”
Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not
Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from
“taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare
to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar
al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose,
we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.
Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”.
There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points
before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large
groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming
across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic
State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims
alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable
means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of
killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The
killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of
muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the
Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores
the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of
Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of
home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera
phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner,
lurking under every bed.
By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before
they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect
the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to
protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be
Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with
other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and
improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies.
Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep
you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before
parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and
regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further
encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our
own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.
“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.