Comment

Campaigns fuelled by fear

<i>Illustration: Matt Davidson</i>
Illustration: Matt Davidson 

The federal election campaign has all the hallmarks of a classic law and order campaign with each side trying to outdo the other as tough on crime. Operation Sovereign Borders and the PNG ''solution'' fit the mould of the punitive and militaristic lexicon of various ''wars on crime''. Law and order has been entrenched in state and territory election politics for at least two decades.

Federal politics remained free of such politics until relatively recently because the constitution gives the states and territories responsibility for crime and law enforcement. Federal responsibility for borders provided the vehicle for Howard to declare ''war on the borders'' in 2001. Law and order politics manipulates and creates public anxiety to win elections at the cost of sustainable and humane solutions to complex problems.

Law and order really took off in the 1980s at state and territory level as a major issue in a party's electoral fortunes. The rise of law and order politics in Australia paralleled developments in the US and Britain where, in a move from welfare to what has been called the crimefare state, governments shifted away from offering a safety net to protect vulnerable groups at risk to seeing people as a risk. The pattern was set, public anxieties about crime were fuelled and each side of politics would accuse the other of being soft on crime and jockey to outbid the other with ''solutions'', inevitably involving more police, police powers and harsher penalties.

That the fear of crime was exaggerated and the ''solutions'' had no impact on crime rates didn't detract from the success of such campaigns. The campaigns worked with the electorate because they channelled people's sense of insecurity into fear of ''the other''. For governments, particularly conservative ones, such campaigns drew attention away from cuts to welfare and privatisation of state services.

The US had its first national law and order election in 1988. Trailing his Democratic opponent in the polls, Republican leader George Bush snr used the case of a black man who raped a white woman while on parole, to depict the Democrats as soft on crime.

The Republicans used law and order to incite race-based fears, ultimately winning the election. Australia had its first federal law and order election in 2001 when Howard used the 400 or so asylum seekers on the Tampa as a hook for his tough border message. Every opportunity was used to declare the asylum seekers ''illegal''.

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This was calculated. Polling done for the Liberal Party before the election indicated that law and order was an effective way of appealing to the electorate's race-based fears. The fear and insecurity message woven around the mainly Muslim asylum seekers was drawn tighter with the 9/11 attacks on the US only two weeks later. Howard tarred the asylum seekers with the brush of terrorism, building the platform on which to promote himself as a tough leader in dangerous times.

The 2004 election followed a similar pattern, with Howard putting national and border security at the front line of his party's policy platform. Federal Labor was by then playing the game. In 2003, Labor's leader in the Senate observed ''the wages of fear are political success''. Howard discovered another national emergency in the lead-up to the 2007 election when he used the military to intervene in remote indigenous communities.

Again the spectre of crime and race entered the election campaign, stoking the public's sense of outrage and giving Howard the opportunity to appear tough and decisive. The rhetoric of law and order works to sweep aside the very real human problems associated with the ''national emergencies'' and recast them as security problems mandating a punitive response. This year the human rights claims of asylum seekers are hidden by a war on crime rhetoric focused on people smugglers.

There has been much criticism of the major political parties' policies on asylum seekers arriving by boat: the policies are poorly thought through, won't work and are inhumane. The criticisms are true, but the aim of such policies is not to stop boats carrying asylum seekers coming to Australia.

Law and order campaigns at state and territory level have resulted in increasing jail populations and expanding police powers, but have had no positive effect on community safety. All the research demonstrates that punitive responses don't prevent crime.

The politicians know this. Asylum seekers arriving by boat are not a security problem and there is no national emergency. Law and order at the border is a decidedly uncivil form of politics that detracts attention and resources from issues that are of genuine importance.

These include responding to a global crisis that forces many people to make desperate and dangerous journeys by any means possible to flee life-threatening conflict and repression.

  • Jude McCulloch is a professor of criminology at Monash University. She is co-editor (with Sharon Pickering) of Borders and Crime published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012. Jude.mcculloch@monash.edu.