Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Don't keep calm and carry on

  • 24 February 2015

On Monday, Tony Abbott made probably his best speech yet as Prime Minister. It was fervent, intense, and calmly delivered.

Clearly the well-honed text owed much to good political, public service and security agency minds, over a period of months. It would have predated his recent missteps. Yet the weighting of themes and emphases in the text were his own, and it must be judged as his speech.  

There are two questions. First, whether he assessed the present and foreseeable terrorism threat prudently and proportionately. The second concerns the effect of his strategy on the security and cohesion of the Australian community. 

The statement’s timing does seem opportunistic.  The ‘Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery’ was commissioned in August 2014 and published fully six months later, by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

It must have been in circulation internally for some time. If its implementation was urgent, it could have been released earlier, but its release may have been delayed so it could coincide with NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Martin Place Siege review, for maximum impact on opinion polls.

For all the Prime Minister’s dire warnings of a rising terrorist threat requiring new tougher measures, I do not think he makes a very persuasive case.  Australia’s experience of terror is dwarfed by the UK – a similar democratic and multicultural society – during the long years 1969-97 of Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) terrorist attacks on London and Northern Ireland.   

Over this period, the PIRA, armed with powerful weapons and bombs smuggled from Libya and the US, killed 1800 people including 640 civilians. The public response was to keep calm and carry on. Most politicians’ statements were similarly stoical and calming. They did not set out to inflame the threat. Their concern was rather to avoid fuelling panic or defeatism. This long war was fought brutally, with major human rights violations on both sides (only revealed later). But the British Government’s public posture was of calmness, normality, and scrupulous respect for all citizens’ social norms and civil rights.

It set a standard that Abbott went nowhere meeting. His words and tone on Monday were those of an angry and frightened man. The phraseology was frequently over-the-top. There was‘the Islamist death cult has declared war on the world’, ‘the contagion that’s infecting people, grooming them for terrorism’, and more. 

This is language surely intended to instil public fear and loathing of the other. ‘Today’s terrorism