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The Australian Ugliness: Terrorism, Asylum-Seekers, Fear And Politics

September 19, 2001

Roy Morgan Polls An opinion poll published today shows a huge swing in support for the Howard government. The Morgan Poll published today shows two-party-preferred support for the coalition at 60%, the highest figure recorded for the conservatives since 1976 in the aftermath of the Whitlam dismissal.

The poll shows primary vote support for the coalition up 9% in just 3 days to 53%, whereas the ALP's primary vote is down 7% to 32%.

The poll also shows that in the week leading up to the terrorist attacks in the United States the government grabbed a two-party lead of 51.5% for the first time since the 1998 election. This followed a period of intense interest in the fate of the asylum-seekers rescued by the Norwegian ship, the Tampa.

The poll shows a similar turnaround in approval of the performance of John Howard. The Prime Minister's personal approval registered 67%.

Politicians on all sides are urging caution in accepting these poll figures. Normally, large variations are discounted. Experienced poll-watchers prefer to monitor long-term trends and are sceptical of sudden and dramatic shifts in public opinion.

The Prime Minister has said today that he does not believe the poll and has reminded his supporters of the difficulty governments now have in winning a third term.

Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense of unease in the ALP and newfound optimism in the coalition. The polls indicate that even the dramatic unemployment and other economic effects of the Ansett collapse have not dented the government's popularity.

What is disturbing about this turn of events is not the mere reversal of fortunes for the major political groups, but the issues which appear to have prompted it.

Mike Seccombe, writing in today's Sydney Morning Herald, best sums up the attitude:

"People of good conscience on all sides of politics have no doubt that the aim of everything the Government has done over the past couple of months has been to generate irrational fear among Australians over Islamic asylum seekers.

"Take Peter Reith's none-too-subtle suggestions that boat people arriving in Australia included potential terrorists. It was stated even more strongly yesterday by one of the Government's nastiest pieces of work, Peter Slipper. 'There is an undeniable linkage between illegals and terrorists,' he said."

The response of the Labor Opposition is also a concern for many people. Whilst accepting that Beazley's opposition to the Border Protection Bill was a principled stand taken at some political cost, events in the past 24 hours indicate that the ALP has lost its nerve in the light of the American terrorist attacks and the latest polls.

It is reported today that the ALP will give parliamentary support to legislation which will deny judicial review to asylum-seekers, a position the party has opposed in recent years. Victorian Labor Senator Barney Cooney is quoted as saying: "No matter how you dress it up, it is the politics. It's a pretty awful sort of society we now face."

The government has proposed a series of bills which will exclude Christmas and Cocos islands and ashmore Reef from the Australian migration zone. They also allow the use of "reasonable force" to board ships.

The ALP Caucus yesterday caved in by agreeing to support these bills, even though they differ little in substance from the bill rejected a couple of weeks ago. Only a handful of backbenchers opposed the move.

In the words of Senator Bob Brown, it is "appalling that Labor collapsed into timid bipartisanship with Mr Howard over this issue because an election is imminent".

The ALP Shadow Minister for Immigration, Con Sciacca, is reported as saying: "There's no point in us being seen as obstructionist. These are issues we will look at, but at the moment we don't run the immigration program." How lame.

Timid bipartisanship has also been seen in the Opposition's response to the government's use of the ANZUS Treaty to pledge support to a United States "war" against terrorism.

This hollow gesture of invoking a treaty that guarantees nothing but consultation between the parties is politics, pure and simple. There has been almost no discussion in Australia over the past week of the realities of our own strategic, defence and economic interests as compared to those of the United States.

The level of rhetoric in the United States at present, exemplified by George W. Bush's "wild west" comments about capturing Bin Laden "dead or alive", should be treated with caution in Australia, not embraced as part of a modern-day "crusade".

As The London Guardian pointed out earlier this week, it is "the forensic prosecution and administration of justice that the world should demand as the proper reaction. America has been grievously wronged and it must be supported wholeheartedly and without reserve. But it is justice, not war, that we should seek as we strive to come to terms with some of the most horrifying episodes that many of us will witness in our lifetimes."

Moreover, our political leaders ought not to have as their aim the fanning of ethnic suspicions. As Paul Rodan has pointed out in relation to the Tampa refugees: "The obvious rational point - that the refugees are fleeing these tyrants - is likely to be lost in the general emotional cyclone generated by tabloids and shock-jocks."

The fear engendered by the terrorists in the United States last week should not be allowed to stand. Equally, cynical and politically-motivated fear ought not to triumph at the expense of justice and liberal-democratic values. We have already seen the damage that can be done to the political process by groups such as One Nation. Now is not the time to fan the flames of intolerance.

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