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Carmen Lawrence exposes the Politics of Fear

Fear And PoliticsFormer 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.

Fear and Public PolicyI 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 of hatred and revenge".

John HowardHer use of the quote in the book clearly indicts the Howard government for fomenting discord and disharmony, at a national level, in order to gain political mileage.

When I put it to her that the Labor opposition has not been so very different in recent yeas, she is robust in defence of her former colleagues.

"I think we (the Labor Party) have spoken out often enough in opposition to what the government has done," she says in their defence.

I cannot help thinking, however, that this is at odds with her stance during the November 2001 election campaign - when it was common knowledge that Dr Lawrence disapproved of Labor's handling of the Tampa Affair. Similarly, Labor's failure to take a strong stand against the Government on migration led to her public disagreement and eventual resignation from the Federal Shadow Cabinet in December 2002.

When I push Dr Lawrence on this disagreement with her former colleagues, and her thrust for a change of party policy at the time, her response is short and to the point.

Tampa"If you sign up to be a shadow minister, you make certain concessions (if you like), to the right to hold your own opinion, and that's why I left. I was disturbed…by the lack of vigour."

But that was Labor then. Is it even up to Labor to lead the way now, or should change be sought at a grassroots level?

"I think if political leaders and community leaders start to say 'Come on guys, this is not a way to live your life'. That we have to deal with these threats. They're real, but deal with them without going into this continual panic mode. When Howard is distracted, he drops it for a while too. And he is at the moment, you don't hear so much talk about terrorism threats. It diminishes in intensity."

I put to it Dr Lawrence that Labor does not seem to be offering a strong alternative view, a different framework within which Australians can re-imagine their nation. She stops short of agreeing with me – old habits die hard, and old colleagues are difficult to criticise. But she does concede that the ALP needs to offer more than just 'hope' as an alternative to fear. Whether it can actually 'sell' something as ephemeral as hope is another question entirely.

"Fear and Politics" is published by Scribe, ISBN 1920769870, RRP $22.00



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