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Carmen Lawrence exposes the Politics of Fear

  • 24 July 2006

Former ALP heavyweight Carmen Lawrence asserts that the developed world is safer today than it's ever been. Her argument flies in the face of the reality that there has never been greater rewards for politicians willing to peddle fear.

I meet Australia's first female premier following the launch of her book Fear and Politics, which is based on a series of four public lectures given for the Freilich Foundation in 2005. Dr Lawrence, who entered the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1986, strikes me as forthright and astute in person, as any half decent politician must be.

For the first time in two decades, she appears to have moved away from the ALP - despite the fact that she was Labor's first directly elected President as recently as 2004. A former minister in the Keating Government, her career has been marked by highs and lows, including the Penny Eastman Affair.

The central thesis of her book is that contemporary politicians routinely use fear to gain and maintain their foothold in the electorate. The ubiquitous 'War on Terror' is employed by governments and agencies everywhere to promote and engender a climate of fear, which in turn allows for greater liberties to be taken with basic civil rights than ever before.

I ask her what she means when she claims the developed world has never been safer.

"We all construct world views that give us a sense of meaning," she says. "Mostly it is about belonging to a group and having a sense of identity and purpose."

Lawrence suggests that events like Bali, September 11 and the Cronulla riots, simply remind us that we are mortal.

"Where the link with Cronulla comes in is that the constant repetition of the idea that we are at risk of a terrorist threat, in a sense makes that an almost pathological response instead of a normal response."

She believes the promotion of fear causes people to withdraw into the groups with which they identify. Subsequently they act in much more discriminatory and hostile ways towards others.

"They hang on to national symbols, they become more intolerant, they dislike dissent and so on," she says. "My thesis is the events themselves will provoke us into those reactions."

Lawrence quotes Sir Robert Menzies' wartime use of fear to achieve his political aims. Menzies described frightened people as "much more pliant instruments and much readier receptacles for notions