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Howard harnesses fear in power politics

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Friday, 15 July 2005

For a Prime Minister who wants us all, in the face of terrorism, to be “relaxed and comfortable”, and “alert, but not alarmed”, John Howard does a fine job of keeping anxiety levels high.

John Howard’s comments last Sunday, that there is “always the possibility, with bodies still to be recovered from the Kings Cross tunnel, that there could be more Australian victims,” were delivered with considered deliberation. This public comment is a fine example of the Howard Government’s capacity to utilise the drama of a global tragedy.

Whether it’s terrorist attacks or tsunamis, our Prime Minister has mastered the art of handling the public at times of crisis. He managed to limit the amount of attention directed at him during Schapelle Corby’s trial, and now he’s cleverly distributing news of his personal letter to Schapelle not long after the London bombings.


Before Howard, the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also mused on the possibilities of an Australian victim being identified among the dead. With such a possibility at the forefront of their minds at every interview, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were willing an Australian citizen to be found among the rubble of London’s Underground.

While it may be macabre to think that a political party would use the discovery of a deceased Australian citizen for political gain, we should not be so naïve as to fail to recognise the levels to which people will descend to maintain power.

The politics of fear have always been with us. Author of Culture of Fear, Professor Frank Furedi, reminds us that fear of the “other side” was continuous through World War II. Since then, he says we have seen that “(f)ear of communism underpinned Cold War ideology, with periodic outbursts of fear of crime, fear of immigrants, and fear of nuclear war”.

Furedi identifies that the politics of fear is “one of the principal discoveries made by 21st century media pundits”. He goes on to identify that the breadth of our media, and the narrative power of stories surrounding fear has given greater capacity to those able to use fear to their advantage.

“Today, however, public fears are rarely expressed in response to any specific event. Rather, the politics of fear captures a sensibility towards life in general. The statement “I am frightened” is rarely focused on something specific, but tends to express a diffuse sense of powerlessness,” he says.

Furedi gives insight into what political advisers whisper into politician’s ears. The strategy is not to makes us fearful: we are already afraid. The strategy is to maintain the existing fear. Howard and his cabinet do this by stoking the fire with words cloaked in sympathy. Instead of talking of potential danger, current government ministers discuss the potential loss of life. This enables them to appear concerned, rather than inciting alarm.


What are the benefits of speculative comments to the media that an Australian citizen may be found dead? It is more likely English citizens who will be found, and no more likely an Australian than a citizen of any other country of the world.

Perhaps our feeling helpless may allow us to continue being distracted by our fear, rather than questioning the impact of changes in legislation and policy that actually affect our daily lives. And under the new Senate, there are many of those going on.

Ultimately, Howard is playing politics - and playing it well. Howard makes the politics of fear work: it is in his, and the Liberal party’s interests. But is it in ours?

During the last British election campaign, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “Fear makes us look first for defences and for reactive, damage-limiting solutions. And the difficulty then is that such solutions can put deeper interests, rights and needs ... at considerable risk.”

This is a risk that John Howard is obviously prepared to take.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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