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Election year fear and loathing



It looks certain that over the next three months before the federal election fear will dominate Australian public conversation. This time includes Lent, a time traditionally dedicated to prayer and penance. So we can hardly complain if politicians add to the penitential mood of the season. Even if we deplore the appeal to fear, though, it is worth reflecting on why politicians indulge in it, under what conditions it is successful, and how it is best responded to.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time on 21 February 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)We need only read children's stories to recognise that fear can be quite effective in controlling behaviour. If children are too adventurous for their own good, fearsome stories of ogres, bushrangers or the dreaded winged Jabbapokeakillasnakes infesting the woods and distant streets might make them tread more carefully.

If they believe that a gruff and reclusive neighbour living in a dilapidated house, who growls at children and refuses to let them search for balls that have gone over his fence, is in league with the monsters, that will cement the effects of fear. When resentment is added to fear, trust in the myth grows and control is greater. If fear is not to paralyse children, however, they also need the assurance of a trusted Daddy strong enough to overcome all foul fiends.

It is notorious political wisdom that in journalism and in political campaigns you should treat the punters as seven year olds. If that is so, it is no wonder that so many election campaigns appeal to fear. The surprise is that they do not always work. The children's stories suggest why this may be so.

For the myth to be effective children must believe it, be terrified by it and know their Daddy can defend them. That means it needs to fit into a wider network of myth that shapes their world. Election campaigns based on campaigns against Communist led unions could once be effective because the local demons were set against the known brutality of Stalinist regimes and so could plausibly evoke the cosmic struggle of good against evil and of tyranny against freedom. Fear was seen as a reasonable response to local events and their larger significance.

When conjuring up demons you need also to offer assurance of a plausibly strong Daddy capable of exorcising them. If Daddy is a manifest wimp, children's fear will turn to apathy and withdrawal, not trust in his strong right arm. In the elections that focused on the Communist menace Prime Minister Menzies with his bushy eyebrows evoked the requisite strength and assurance needed. In more recent elections Messrs Trump and Duterte were invested with this power by many of their fellow citizens.

In order to sow fear it is also very helpful to build on existing resentments. In Australia foreigners, and especially those seeking protection from persecution, have been used as lightning conductors of resentment. They are accused of having a lend of good Aussies, jumping queues, breaking laws unconscionably, taking jobs, begging while concealing hidden riches, consorting with people smugglers, and so on. People are ready to turn to a strong Daddy who is not deceived, calls a spade a spade, and can cut through the thickets of law and decency in which despised people seek protection.


"If in the playground we encourage children to act with courage, reasonableness, decency and integrity in resisting fear, might we not rightly hesitate before discountenancing the same values in politics?"


I regard the appeal to fear of bogey men in the coming election as manipulative and deplorable. But that does not mean it will not work. Its efficacy will depend on whether argument or resentment will make enough people see the fear of mass boat arrivals and of economic disaster as credible, and will see the sowers of fear as plausible saviours. Neither demand seems likely to be met.

The connection made between bringing people to Australia for medical care and the launching of a thousand boats seems a trifle hysterical, and Messrs Morrison and Dutton a tad too opportunistic to be welcomed as saviours. Nor does there appear to be the strong popular resentment against asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru needed to make thin arguments powerful and to turn puny would-be saviours into Colossi. The targets of resentment are more likely to be sought in the corporate world.

These prognostications, of course, are mere surmise and may well be proved false in the event. The more important question is how politicians should respond to the political appeal to myths that feed fear. The common political wisdom is that, like disbelieving children in the playground, they should run with the bullies by mimicking their attitudes and refraining from calling them out. Otherwise they may be made scapegoats.

That political wisdom may be realistic, and opposition parties may enhance their electoral prospects by making themselves a small target indistinguishable from governments. And yet, if in the playground we encourage children to act with courage, reasonableness, decency and integrity in resisting fear, might we not rightly hesitate before discountenancing the same values in politics?



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time on 21 February 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, election 2019



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Existing comments

Why does this article ..’fear and loathing’ and reference to politicians indulging in appeal to fear feature only a photo of Prime Minister Scott Morrison ? Is the thrust of the article that ‘fear and loathing’ directed at Scott Morrison and his government will not work ? Last Federal election the famous, reprehensible ‘’Mediscare’ campaign was a toxic example of ‘fear and loathing’ was it not? Or are we saying that reprehensible ‘fear and loathing’ campaigns are a creature only of the conservative side of politics ? I’m confused.

bb | 01 March 2019  

Maybe "Medici, cura te ipsum" could apply here. In a political sense, of course.

Pam | 01 March 2019  

i think that politicians only think of their pension ,not of giving to help those in need.

maryellen flynn | 01 March 2019  

Conservative forces of all colours have always relied on the power of commercialism. They'd go to war if it's only profitable; from the Crusaders to the invasion of Iraq. They'd trot out principles as a means to convince the masses that they care. The Coalition is in deep political swamp. They're not a nited party that could provide the necessary leadership for this country. They 're sufficiently intelligent to realise that their chances at the ballot are dwindling by the day. So, they go to war. With defenceless asylum seekers, promising to ward off the evil people smugglers (by the way, how many did they manage to capture with their hi-tech and fully resourced Border patrols? Remember the Second World War? The plight of the Jews were largely ignored by the British Empire and her Dominions, until they felt that their land boundaries were threatened by an over-ambitious dictator. Once again, self-interest managed to wrangle its way disguised as some kind of patriotism and defence of the Realm bit. Morrison is doing exactly what those delusional dictators did. Spread the fear, far and wide and, Bingo! The tragedy of it all is that most of us believe in that kind of political garbage. Indeed, "fear and loathing" is the most effective political weapon of the day. Trump's been doing that for the best part of his rise into the White House. And, what's good for Trump is good for our ScoMo!

Alex Njoo | 04 March 2019  

Good article Fr Andrew well focused on fears which politicians play. Politicians need to believe in their people, not their hip pockets. Parliament is a rich boys club. Well may Scomo brag about new female members of cabinet and about Border security. We need to know where all their election contributions come from. In reality the Liberal agenda is lacking in addressing: Global warming, job creation (letting large manufacturing tenders overseas); Replacement of the car industry: Nationalising our river systems and developing an integrated approach; Turning the spotlight on Chinese ownership of Australian business and letting them lease ports right round the country including Darwin, Newcastle, Melbourne together with their military grade airport near Karatha WA. Turning attention to their overstay visa problem and illegal entries; The whaling cull Japan is engaging in. Foreign ownership of strategic land. Whilst most of China's $40.4 billion in the past few years investment is in mining, it is electricity and water plus real estate that are China's new targets. Whilst Reporters say not all are SOEs, there is little difference if push comes to shove. Selling off the silverware for a comfortable 3 years in power is not the answer.

Francis Armstrong | 04 March 2019  

There was a time, years ago, when Catholics in Victoria were directed not to vote Labor because of that party's supposed link to Communism. The DLP, although not an officially Catholic party, was the way to go. These days are very different. In some current progressive social causes, such as voluntary euthanasia, both major parties seem to be moving in the same direction. The Greens are already there. It is only what I would consider extremely conservative political parties who will not support this issue. Are there, or have there ever been, in our political tradition, politicians who understand what Jesus was on about when he talked of the difference between the realms of Caesar and God and yet, in vitally important moral matters, which are often few and far between, take a practical Christian stance? I think the great exemplar here was William Wilberforce, who, as an extremely practical politician, worked so hard to abolish the Slave Trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce was an exemplary Christian who never gave way to hatred. We need to nurture our Australian Wilberforces. They exist.

Edward Fido | 07 March 2019  

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