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Dr Carmen Lawrence addresses a rally about the Chinese government

Dr Carmen Lawrence's Freilich Foundation lectures

Fear and Public Policy

Former WA Premier, past President for the ALP and the Federal member for Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer in 2005 at The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation.

Dr Lawrence generously supplied the lectures to us for publication - they are brought together in a series of four pages. Below are links to the other three lectures.

Related pages:

1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Relaxed and Comfortable? | - I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic. As the title suggests, I will place this in the context of asking whether the objective Howard set himself as he approached government in 1996 has been realised.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Annihilation | - Just last week the Prime Minister and Premiers gathered to devise even more draconian laws following the London bombings, ostensibly to protect us from such threats, while insisting that the threat level has actually not increased since that time.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Crime | - The last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery.

Lecture One: Fear of the Other

The Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer
Dr Carmen Lawrence, MP
7 September 2005

One of the reasons offered for adopting democracy as a system of government is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination. Democracy has been described as a "fear-less" or "fear-resolving" system and one of the recurrent themes in the evolution of democracies is that government by fear is inherently illegitimate. Most democracies limit the use of fear as a political weapon by developing institutions which ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties.

There is, however, plenty of scope, even in established democracies, to use fear as a device to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters. Such fear is not so much fear of government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. It is a calculated exploitation of both the explicit and the inchoate fears that many of us have.

In this lecture series I will discuss the role of fear in shaping public policy - in particular, fear of strangers, fear of crime and the fear of annihilation. I will suggest that fear and the exploitation of fear has widespread and distorting repercussions - influencing policy, changing the balance of power and overturning long-cherished values.

While many writers and philosophers repudiate fear as the enemy of freedom and reason; others appear to embrace it as a source of political vitality and national unity.

I will argue that fear is a potent (and dangerous) political tool, generated and exploited by political leaders (and the media) because it assists them to pursue specific political goals or to reinforce their moral and political belief systems.

The first lecture, "Fear of Strangers" will focus the influence of xenophobia in shaping policies directed toward refugees, indigenous Australians and Islamic fundamentalists. Refugees make easy targets for fear and loathing in contemporary Australia, despite the fact that their numbers are small and that they pose no threat to our security. Huge sums have been spent on their detention and our human rights credentials have been trashed because governments have seen political advantage in using them as magnets for our insecurity. We've also been invited to regard indigenous Australians as outsiders who threaten to appropriate "our" lands, invade "our" suburbs and "take what does not belong to them."

The second lecture, "Fear of Crime" will argue that the last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery. The effects of these fears on law and justice policies and on public expenditure will be explored.

The third, "Fear of Annihilation" will discuss the effects of constantly being told that biggest risk to our safety comes from terrorists who might attack us at any moment. Our own government and media have adopted without question the "War on Terror" slogan as a representation of how we should respond to these threats. I will question the use of what Greider has described as this "brilliantly seductive political message" that "terror pre-empts everything else."

"In the final lecture, "Relaxed and comfortable?", I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic.  I will argue that fear cannot be a foundation of moral and political argument and that the necessary antidote to the toxin of fear is a wholehearted embrace of the principles of freedom, equality and co-operation. Human betterment must again be the prime focus of politics."

Lecture 1: Fear of the Other

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." - F.D.Roosevelt, 1933

In this lecture series I will discuss the role of fear in shaping public policy - in particular, fear of strangers, fear of crime and the fear of annihilation. I will suggest that fear and the exploitation of fear have widespread and distorting repercussions - influencing policy, changing the balance of power and overturning long-cherished values.

While many writers and philosophers repudiate fear as the enemy of freedom and reason; others appear to embrace it as a source of political vitality and national unity.

I will argue that fear is a potent (and dangerous) political tool, generated and exploited by political leaders (and the media) because it assists them to pursue specific political goals or to reinforce their moral and political belief systems.

In this first lecture, "Fear of Strangers", I will focus on the influence of xenophobia in shaping policies directed toward refugees, indigenous Australians and Islamic fundamentalists.


Perhaps because of my early training in psychology and my exposure as a young adult to the graphic depiction of the Vietnam carnage, I have often tried to understand how human beings arrive at the point where they can torture and kill one another. I have read fairly extensively - perhaps to the point of obsession - about torture and mass murder as instruments of political regimes, particularly in Nazi Germany.

Like many, I have asked how ordinary people could have become "Hitler's willing executioners"1, how doctors could have employed their skills to experiment on and kill disabled people, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the Jewish people 2. How was it that so many could stand by as their Jewish neighbours were first branded and excluded from normal life, then herded into ghettoes and cattle trucks and say that they did not know what was happening?

How could so many otherwise unexceptional men become expert in torture and murder for tyrants like Stalin, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. How could they so completely deny their victims' humanity, slaughtering them with no more thought than they would give to swatting a fly? How it is that, today, young men (and some women) so little value their own lives and those of others that they appear to have no compunction in obliterating themselves to murder hundreds and thousands of people they've never met?

The easy answers are that they were terrorised into complicity by powerful authority figures, or that they were somehow deranged or, even less satisfactorily, that they were simply evil. These glib assessments allow us to escape the uncomfortable conclusion - which I think is closer to the mark - that under certain conditions we may all be capable of brutality or, at least, indifference to it. Oppressive regimes could not operate without the "willing executioners", without technocrats to keep the wheels of the system turning or without the majority of the populace being willing to turn a blind eye to the disappearances and the brutality taking place around them.

The uncomfortable suspicion that any of us could be persuaded to deal with our fellow human beings as non-human is difficult and many would want to exempt themselves from such a damning conclusion. Yet we know that, in the recent past, cultivated men and women were comfortable with owning, buying and selling other human beings. In our own history, Indigenous Australians were treated as less than human, murdered, mistreated and taken from their families. We know that, in living memory, many Germans voted for a man who made it clear that he regarded the Jews as a "problem" requiring a "solution". In Rwanda the bloodbath that erupted involved so much of the population that the idea of individual psychopathology simply will not do as an explanation. In Bosnia neighbours who had lived peaceably together slaughtered one another without apparent regret.

In all of these situations, and others like them, one of the major contributors to the oppression and bloodletting is the continued depiction of the targets of brutality as dangerous, as threatening a community's safety or way of life. If a group feels threatened in this way, it may attempt to eliminate the perceived threat, sometimes by violent means. Very often, this characterisation is the result of a very deliberate and carefully constructed propaganda campaign by political figures exploiting - indeed cultivating- primitive fears and encouraging people to deny the reality of their senses when they inflict damage on others. At other times, it reflects the longer, slower process of the formation of prejudice. The most lethally effective of these campaigns feeds on ancient group prejudices. Anthony Beevor put it succinctly in his account of the downfall of Berlin in 1945 3:

Berliners suffered from an atavistic and visceral fear of the Slav invader from the east. Fear was easily turned into hatred.

The dark fears of citizens are easily exploited by the unscrupulous. Hitler was only able to construct the awful machine that spawned the Holocaust because of a pre-existing political culture of anti-Semitism on which he could draw to drive the relentless campaign to eradicate European Jewry. His depiction of the Jews as vermin, as dangerous and highly infectious bacilli intent on destroying the fabric of German society both reflected and amplified commonly held fears.

These examples should remind us that such prejudicial ideas, such cognitive models, are socially constructed. They are inculcated by families and reinforced by social institutions and broader social conversations amongst our political leaders, in the media and around us. These cognitive models define and form our understanding of the world and motivate our actions. People come to accept them as self evident truths, especially if they are uncontested. Every time a shock-jock or a politician depicts Indigenous Australians as violent drunks or Muslims as hostile to Australian values, and no one disagrees, these ideas gain credibility. I was stunned that Mrs Bishop's calls for the Hijab to be banned in schools because wearing them was an act of defiance, earned no rebuke at all from the Prime Minister. In fact, while demurring that such a ban might not be "practical", he defended her right to free speech while apparently ignoring Muslim women's right to religious freedom.

There are many - too many - examples of our all too human tendency to diminish the humanity of others; read the letters pages of most newspapers and sample popular talk back radio for a few examples. Hateful attitudes toward Indigenous people and Muslims abound, often with the predictable disclaimer - I'm not a racist, but..."

And in this process, whether in apparently mundane comments or life threatening conflict, fear plays a pivotal role.

As Mattil 4 has observed,

The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear. It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there. Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear.

Fear in Democracies

One of the motivations for adopting democracy as a system of government stems from people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination. Since democracy is based on non-violent power sharing as a replacement for arbitrary and despotic rule, democracy has been described as a "fear-less" or "fear-resolving" system. One of the recurrent themes in the evolution of democracies is the view that government by fear is inherently illegitimate.

In the hands of despotic and imperial regimes, the armed forces are as likely to be used to terrorise citizens as they are to attack those threatening the state. Such regimes employ spies and informants, brutal punishments, forced conversions, torture and massacre to "pacify" citizens. Theoretically, in democracies the control of the military and police forces is vested in "the people" through their elected representatives, and such fear-inducing brutality is repudiated as a means of maintaining civil order.

Most would also suppose that democracies "diminish the use of fear as a weapon by those who govern by institutionalising arms-length limits upon the scope of political power, in the form of civil society."5 Such institutions ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties, including protection from the fear of violent death or harm at the hands of others. At the same time, such civil society rests on the corollary assumption that the "other" can be accepted, even welcomed, without fear.

There is, however, plenty of scope, even in established democracies to use fear as a device to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters. Such fear is not so much fear of government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. It is a calculated exploitation of both the explicit and the inchoate fears that many of us have.

There are, of course, many things about which it is reasonable to be fearful - but it is also possible for our leaders to feed and amplify these fears for political advantage. They are often aided and abetted by the media in generating what Cohen has called "moral panics". At the same time, it suits our political leaders to minimise the really frightening prospects which would require substantial changes in our life-styles if they were given proper weight - global warming and growing inequality, to name just two.

Fear can be manipulated and attached to objects and circumstances which do not pose an objective threat. We learn what to fear and can be induced to behave fearfully and seek protection, even in the absence of a tangible threat. One of the consequences of such tactics is a profound distortion of public policy so that we apply the ineffective remedies to poorly defined problems.

In the past, it was more likely for politicians to promise to create a better world. While the means of achieving this desired goal might vary, as did the definition of what constituted a "better world", their power and authority derived, as least in part, from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. As the director of the documentary "The Power of Nightmares"6 has observed, with the loss of faith in these visions,

politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but they have now discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares.

As another commentator put it, "in the wake of September 11 we have been painfully reminded of the virility of fear. "Fear", along with "terror", has become one of the staples of the ensuing political and media discourse." But such atrocities and such "fear" are not new, no matter how much the United States wants to see September 11 as unique in human history. Such terrorist attacks are "as old as history and not likely to disappear soon. Suicide bombers are contemporary versions of an old phenomenon."

In fact, in the early part of the century, Camus described the 20th century as the "century of fear", because catastrophic and terrifying events happened so often and so quickly that people had no time to stop and think, and simply reacted with the visceral reactions of fear. There was much debate following the pointless barbarity of the World War 1 about the "The Age of Anxiety"; an anxiety stemming from the knowledge of the "dread freedom" of humanity.

Fear is arguably the most powerful human emotion. It acts as an alarm to indicate the presence of a threat and stimulates us to respond to save ourselves from damage, destruction, and death. Since fear is one of the primary human emotions, we do not need to learn how to feel fear. But we have to learn what to fear. In his definitive work, Denial of Death, Becker argued that knowledge of our own death is the source of our 'peculiar and greatest anxiety'; it's what makes us human.

Our response will usually be proportionate to any perceived threat. Fear, in other words, is normally an adaptive response to danger, to the perception that we are not safe. When we are extremely afraid, surviving at any cost may become our top priority and we may, at that moment, be willing to do almost anything just to stay alive. Excessive fear can overwhelm rational thought.

If we are frightened enough, we will even be willing to give up our freedom.

The threat of fear is a familiar tool for ensuring compliance. Parents learn early that to threaten unpleasant consequences is often sufficient to change an unruly child's bad behaviour. The American social scientist Lakoff 7 argues that the current United States government (like many conservative regimes) operates like a strict father family, which "sees the world as a dangerous and difficult place, where evil lurks" and believes it has a responsibility through example and painful punishment to instil discipline.

Political Fear

According to Corey it is possible to identify what he calls "political fear" - "a political tool, an instrument of elite rule or insurgent advance created and sustained by political leaders or activists who stand to gain something from it, whether because fear helps them pursue a specific political goal or because it reflects or lends support to their moral and political beliefs -or both." He suggests that such fear can operate in one of two ways: political leaders and elites can define what is or ought to be the principal object(s) of public fear and they can wield fear to threaten those who appear to challenge their power and status.

In the first case, the selected object of fear usually does pose some level of threat, but the threat may be exaggerated or given undue emphasis when compared with other potential objects of fear. It is usually politicians who define what is worthy of attention, who mobilise public opinion and who propose methods to deal with that threat. It does not automatically follow that everybody shares the fear, but rather that it dominates the public debate and monopolises resources. Politicians' success as protectors - not so difficult when the threat is exaggerated and the remedies ill-defined - then consolidates their legitimacy and enhances their power.

Both ideology and political opportunity can determine what is selected for attention. For example, while much was made of the asylum seekers in boats who were said to be potential terrorists and a threat to our national security, almost nothing was said about the much more numerous group of asylum seekers who arrived by air and remained in the community - not to mention the even greater number of those who overstayed their visas. Similarly, while the danger that Islamic extremists pose to national security is singled out for particular attention, Christian extremists, far right political groups and corporations who do business with rogue states or even terrorist groups escape attention.

The second major use of fear in any society arises directly from social, economic and political inequalities. Its purpose is intimidation, using sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, to ensure that one group maintains or augments its power at the expense of another. Such sanctions need not be explicit, although it is usually made clear that failure to behave in certain ways will have adverse consequences. Nor are we talking only about gross violations of human rights; people will often conform as a result of petty tyranny and small coercions, often in ways that stifle criticism and circumscribe policy options. Non-government and advocacy groups in Australia, for example, have been threatened with the loss of funding or tax-deductible status for donations to them unless they toe the government lines. The Muslim community is being told to shape up or "clear out" and to ensure the teaching of "Australian values" in their schools or risk losing their funding.


Fears about losing identity and security are almost invariably at the root of conflict within and between societies. We all identify ourselves in certain ways based on culture, language, race, religion etc. Perceived threats to these identities may arouse very real fears of extinction, oppression and loss of control. It is clear that one of the fears exaggerated and exploited by extremists, both political and religious, is the fear of cultural erosion due to the forces of modernity and secularism.

For such threats to be potent sources of action (or reaction), enough people in the social group need to share a view about themselves (an identity) that they can be galvanised into action to defend that identity. Each person's perception of him or her self will be a unique combination of a number of identities - as wide as man or woman, Jew or Muslim or as narrow as being a member of a particular family. Some of these identities will be entirely personal, others collective. In the latter case, if the identification is central and strong, people will experience distress (and threat) when others sharing their identity are injured or killed. Newspaper editors well understand that their stories of human tragedy gain maximum traction when the victims are most like the readers in nationality or race.

People who share an identity will often think of themselves as having a common interest and a common fate, especially if they are forced to defend that identity. Consider the following perceptive observations by Shakira Hussein, a PHD student at this university:

I am an Australian Muslim. I am also a feminist, a single mother, a proud supporter of state education, a firm believer in secularism. My father is Pakistani Muslim, but my mother is an Australian Catholic. One of my strongest political influences was my grandfather, a World War II veteran who served at Tobruk. My family includes Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, and followers of the Indian guru Meher Baba. Thanks to a very happy period in my life as a housekeeper for an Iranian Jewish family, I can keep a kosher kitchen. I have seen at first hand the damage that religious extremism has wrought to the country of my paternal ancestry; I have interviewed survivors of the Taliban regime. I am not about to be tempted by jihadi ideology.

So if I am feeling alienated and excluded from Australian political debate, just imagine how the average disaffected eighteen year old Muslim male is feeling. The various Liberal politicians who have been lining up to tell Muslims if they don't like Australia they can, in the words of Brendan Nelson, "clear off", would no doubt say that they are not talking to Muslims like me. They mean the extremists, the bigots, the potential suicide bombers. Muslims like me are meant to be part of the solution.

But the call to shape up or "clear off" is deeply alienating for Muslims across the ideological spectrum, suggesting as it does that our Australian identity is somehow conditional on our good behaviour. The most common country of birth for Australian Muslims is Australia. Our Australian identity is not conditional on our subscription to "Australian values", "mateship", or any other ill-defined label. "If you don't like it here, you can go back to where you came from" is the kind of schoolyard taunt with which Australians with dark skin, non-Anglo names, and strange food in their lunchboxes are all too familiar. It is impossible to hear it being expressed by our nation's political leadership without feeling threatened.

She goes on to say,

Bronwyn Bishop claims that Muslim schoolgirls should not be allowed to wear hijab because it is simply a "gesture of defiance". For some girls, "defiance" may be a partial motive, alongside religious conviction - but there are much more destructive ways of expressing defiance. In the last few weeks, I myself have begun to dress in a more identifiably Muslim style, not only in "defiance" of rhetoric such as Bishop's, but also to remind close-minded elements of my own faith that people like me are Muslim, too.

I quote Shakira at length because I think she illustrates just how counterproductive the recent attempts to coerce Muslim Australians into the embrace of a narrowly defined Australian identity are likely to be. As Guy Rundle astutely observed of Nelson's campaign for Muslims to embrace "Australian Values":

So what is the purpose, or at least the result, of this urging on of a grab-bag of universal social values and particular modern ones as 'Australian'? It is racism pure and simple. It is an attempt to paint the global Islamic community as some sort of de-socialised rabble, who are so barbaric that they have to be told to teach their children the virtues of care and honesty.

Such insults may indeed make many people more aware of their Muslim identity and may even reinforce that identity at the expense of other identities as they are pressed into the role of "other" in our social conversation. Or it may make them feel embarrassed and ashamed. It matters because it may feed into the "wounded identity", the sense of isolation and outsider status that some Muslims already feel, not least because they have been subject to escalating levels of racial vilification and even violence.

Following the recent London bombings, many ethnic groups, especially those who are identified as Arab or Muslim, have reported a "climate of fear" - racism has hit new peaks not seen since One Nation was in full flight. The Victorian Equal Opportunity Commissioner reported that complaints about religious discrimination and harassment have doubled since 1999.

There are recent reports that some people from south Asia regret having migrated because of the increasing frequency of racist taunts and discrimination. Muslim migrants from India and Bangladesh, in particular, have experienced regular racial slurs and antagonism which has resulted in great distress and mental illness. Similar conclusions were outlined in the 2004 HREOC report which found that many Muslims felt fearful and isolated and that prejudice was a daily ordeal.

Inflammatory remarks by Federal Ministers who have demanded that migrants who do not accept Australian values should leave or face deportation have contributed to this climate of fear. At a time when our leaders should be calming fears, they are playing on those fears. When they should be doing all they can to help us all to see events from the other's perspective, they are inviting us to retreat into our own narrow identities. When they should be assisting us to recognise how our own actions and words can cause fear in others, they are giving signals that such sensitivities are unimportant. They are, in my view, playing with fire.

They should, on the contrary, be doing everything they can to make all Australians feel more secure, since the more secure a group feels, the less likely they are to feel the need to attack other groups.

Even when assertions are made that it's only the "Islamic extremists" who are the target, many others will have a real fear that "you should be careful, or you might be next."  Furthermore, such tactics - and policies - which appear to make an example of some members of an identifiable community can also silence those who fear they may also be targeted precisely because they share certain characteristics and values. As one Uruguayan citizen who lived through the repressive regimes of the 70s and 80s recalled:

Our own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: it wasn't just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people - you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.


Strong feelings of identity are often associated with prejudice toward others. Some identities are indeed formed - or reinforced - in opposition to others and may incorporate hostile and prejudicial attitudes to those groups. Chief among the sources of such prejudice is fear - the expectation that "the stranger" will do one harm and that other groups' different views of the world will undermine or corrode one's own.

Some group identities include explicit assumptions that other groups are not to be trusted and may be treated with hostility and disrespect. In some cases such prejudices are based on an uncompromising view of the centrality of one's own group; the tendency to see one's group as superior and more deserving than others. The conquest of Australia and the displacement of Indigenous Australians would not have been possible without an attitude of racial superiority. Claims made by many religions that only their own adherents will be saved have a similar character. My own upbringing was blighted by the divisive certainty that only Catholics were eligible for the divine kingdom. I worried a lot about my (few) protestant friends.

Racism is one of the most potent and persistent forms of such prejudice still abroad in Australian society. As the Vision Declaration for the World Conference against Racism states:

Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance have not gone away. We recognize that they persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. And while we recognize that human fear is itself ineradicable, we maintain that its consequences are not.

The 2001 election in Australia was dominated by the dehumanisation of asylum seekers, by fear and xenophobia - the fear of strangers- and a rejection of "the other". While similar prejudices have attached to previous waves of migrants to our shores, the difference this time was that prejudice was officially sanctioned, indeed encouraged.

This raises significant issues for public policy. How should we react to racially based anger, fear and hostility? This is particularly critical at a time when there are millions of men women and children outside their country of origin. There is no continent or region of the world unaffected by the flow of people seeking refuge for economic reasons, because of civil conflicts or as a result of war and persecution.

Such people are particularly vulnerable because their rights are routinely violated as they seek asylum - they face discrimination, further detention and xenophobic hostility. Indeed the UN Commission on Human Rights reported an alarming upsurge in intolerance toward refugees over the last few years. In many cases, such expressions of hostility and negative stereotyping are made to serve a political purpose as we saw in the 2001 election. The dark fears of citizens are easily exploited by the unscrupulous.

In deliberately portraying asylum seekers as a threat, the government succeeded in gaining traction for the bizarre notion that desperate people in leaky boats were somehow a threat to our national security. They counted on being able to arouse our fear of being overwhelmed by strangers envious of our good fortune, to speak to our old dark fear of invasion. Perhaps our own deep knowledge that we are alien invaders who have stolen the land we occupy allowed them to feed this anxiety.

As Anthony Burke pointed out in "In Fear of Security"8, Australian political figures have often portrayed Australia as vulnerable to loss of sovereignty and have generated levels of fear and anxiety that are disproportionate to the actual threats. It is no accident that Ruddock chose to represent the arrival of an increased number of asylum seekers during 2001 as an "urgent threat to Australia's very integrity" and invoked the phrase "national emergency" to describe the increase in numbers. The Government began with the assumption- no doubt carefully tested in publicly funded opinion polling - that to simply mention "illegal migrants" to some Australians would cause them to lose their grip on reality.

As Burke sees it, a community which sees itself in terms which emphasise threat and vulnerability,

is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power which seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who live outside its protective embrace.

Burke posits the question which I regard as the crucial battleground for the hearts and minds of the Australian people: "Whether an 'Australian' community would be thought of on the basis of a walled and insecure identity, or a generous and outward looking diversity?" Successive Governments have often justified their actions by the "awful moral calculus", as Burke puts it, of defining our security in such a way that it justifies the massive insecurity and distress of others.

Our own governments and business leaders have often used fear as a tool in devising policies which affect indigenous Australians, particularly when appropriating their land. As Day 9 points out, it was after Tasmanian aborigines started to resist the wholesale appropriation of their fertile lands that the "largely benign descriptions of the natives gave way to derogatory descriptions that likened them to (wild) animals."

During the native title debates, we were invited to regard Australia's original inhabitants as outsiders who threatened to appropriate "our" lands, invade "our" suburbs and take what does not belong to them. Remember those maps showing vast tracts of land alienated by native title claims? The more extravagant the W.A Premier, Richard Court, became in his assertions made about the threat posed by native title - to people's prosperity, livelihood and even their backyards - the more popular he became. As I'm sure he calculated, his approval rating climbed from a low 31% before he launched his anti land rights campaign to 53% just six months later.

Hugh Morgan, one of the architects of the new right agenda and the mining industry's campaign against land rights even went so far as to assert divine (Christian) authority for the industry's demands that they be allowed mine on land claimed by aboriginal people. Even more bizarrely, he warned that if land rights were granted that would constitute a sanction of "infanticide, cannibalism and cruel initiation rights"; a "step back to the world of paganism, superstition, fear and darkness"10 - while plumbing the depths of these dark, racist fears.

I've spent enough hours in community functions to know that such views are not isolated. The rise of Hansonism on the back of her attacks on Indigenous people amplified a continuing theme in Australian's conversations about themselves. For example, participants in the Kimberley section of the HREOC consultation reported that tourist bus drivers and operators made racist comments and spread misinformation about Aboriginal people including that, "the blacks here in Fitzroy are dangerous."

I know it is difficult for many Australians to stomach, but it is fair to say, as Dodson and Strelein 11 have done that such racism was a "founding value of Australian society". It was used to justify the "the wholesale denial of Indigenous peoples' rights to retain their social, economic and political structures, while denying their rights to participate in the polity that was under construction."

Upon federation, the nation incorporated the same values of racial superiority and exclusion. The "White Australia" policy was one of the founding principles of the commonwealth, encouraged by the newly formed Labor Party and enacted in legislation as the first act of the new Federal Parliament in 1901. It was feared, as RD Lang thundered, that Chinese immigrants would "swamp the whole European community of these colonies" and "obliterate every trace of British progress and civilisation."

This "invasion anxiety" has always had racial overtones and is often expressed most forcefully by the same people - and governments - who deny that Indigenous Australians are entitled to recognition as the original owners of this country and recompense for what has been taken from them.

Beginning in the late 60s, progress was made in removing the racist underpinnings of both Aboriginal affairs and immigration policies - and there was bipartisan support for these shifts in direction. Sadly, that momentum has now stalled, and reversed. This has been evident in the refusal by the Government to deal effectively with the Stolen Generations report, the chiselling away at Indigenous land rights, the effective demise of the government's involvement in the Reconciliation process and the abolition of ATSIC.

Public policy in Indigenous Affairs is now in the grip of what Guy Rundle calls "the triumph of reaction". This stance seeks to reduce the government's - and the community's - responsibilities to encompassing only so-called "practical reconciliation"; to replace the need to recognise and protect Indigenous rights with what should be their unquestioned right to enjoy the service provision available to all citizens. Both are essential.

"Invasion Anxiety" has also informed the imposition of a brutal detention regime on those people seeking asylum on our shores and changes to the assessment system for migrants which have resulted in a noticeable increase in those from white, English speaking nations.

Australians have been asked to close their eyes to our past, to deny the existence of racist attitudes and behaviour in our community and to resist the pull of our common humanity which might otherwise inform our relations with Indigenous people and migrants. Part of this shift has been propelled by political expediency and part by the peculiar obsessions of the current Prime Minister and his acolytes whose view of the nation encompasses only our virtues and none of our vices.

People are encouraged, as they were with the asylum seekers, to emphasise the difference between them and those they are ignoring or mistreating. The government seized on the children overboard story and kept it going long after they knew it was not true - because it appeared to confirm the view that these were people unworthy of our compassion. How otherwise could they throw their children overboard? They made it clear that "people like that are not people like us" and - read the subtext - "if they are capable of treating their own children so callously, what other horrors might they perpetrate if let loose in our country?"

We can be seduced into believing that we have no obligation to people who do not share our culture and race or who do not belong to our political sphere of influence. Differences felt between 'them" and "us" can be magnified to a point where these people become so alien that they tend not to be seen as fully human. They stop existing as human beings with whom we share a great deal of common ground. As a consequence our capacity to empathise with their suffering and take in the nature of the hurt inflicted on them becomes partially obliterated. How else could we deny the reality of the experience of the stolen generations and refuse to acknowledge the shattering effects of dispossession.

It is only when people are directly confronted with clear evidence that others are more like us than not, when we see their faces and know their names and stories, that this barrier is breached. The Government clearly understood that keeping a safe distance and reducing the opportunities to "humanise" asylum seekers was necessary to ensure the continuing acceptance by the Australian people of the more brutal elements of the asylum seeker policy. It's also why they spent so much energy questioning the accuracy of the searing stories in the "Bringing Them Home" report.

In housing the asylum seekers in remote camps in Australia and thousands of kilometres from the mainland, in refusing to allow any photographs or personal contact with those who were stranded on the Tampa the government was conducting a very deliberate campaign to prevent any identification with the people on board.

The Defence Minister's press secretary gave explicit instructions to the Defence Department that there were to be no "personalising or humanising images" taken of the asylum seekers.12 It is significant that it was only after the public saw the images of a young woman, scandalously detained for months while mentally ill, but with a familiar face and heritage, that the indefinite detention policy was finally amended. As Susan Sontag observed in her essay "Regarding the Pain of Others"13, "photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore."

The capacity to ignore the suffering of others and to be apparently indifferent may be stem from what is described in the research literature as "modern racism"14-a surface belief in racial equality that masks latent prejudicial feelings. At a conscious level, people may endorse principles of fairness and equality, but simultaneously experience and express negative feelings toward other racial and ethnic groups, like the original Australians and the Iraqis and Afghanis who have arrived on our shores.

Research has shown that this is more likely to be expressed by a reluctance to engage in interaction and a failure to help people from such groups rather than in actions that directly inflict harm. Of whites studied in the U.S. nearly half demonstrated this propensity. There is no good reason to believe that Australians are markedly different.

This prejudice also feeds on what some researchers label the "just world hypothesis"15, the belief that people "get what they deserve and deserve what they get", that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and the victims of misfortune deserve their suffering. This view is commonplace in the community and enjoys political patronage. People who think this way subscribe to the view that individuals can control their fates, an illusion which allows people to see their world as orderly and predictable. Anyone who appears to challenge or depart from this order is seen as a threat.

People who strongly hold such beliefs are more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups and those experiencing injustice. They see no need to help asylum seekers because they believe they have somehow "earned" their fate. When people who firmly believe in a "just world" witness the suffering of others, they may first attempt to help but, if that is not possible, they will switch to blaming the victim because of their "bad" acts or their "bad" characters, a reaction which quickly developed in response to destructive acts by detained asylum seekers.

Indigenous Australians commonly encounter this interpretation of their circumstances, most recently in the so-called Shared Responsibility Agreements which require them to contract to do certain things or suffer the loss of basic services. Threat is at the core of these agreements rather than encouragement and support.

Fear underpins much racist behaviour - the fear that what we have will be taken away; that we will lose control of our own future; that those who are now powerless might usurp our precarious position in a changing world. Because fear is such a powerful emotion, it is a reckless leader who nurtures and exploits such fears.

What some of our political leaders have done is to appeal to our basest motives; to fear, envy, prejudice, the desire for revenge and hostility to the outsider. These are techniques which have a long and very dishonourable history and never benefit the community, although they may favour the fortune of political parties.

What must we do?

We require change at every level of society, from the individual through to our national government. The ideas and values which underpin our institutional and public policy need to be tested - and continually tested - for prejudicial and racist attitudes.

The task is to dismantle institutionalised racism and discrimination in the Australian state. The Reconciliation process is part of this re-examination, but it cannot take place without governments' participation and leadership. It cannot be left to a minority who are, in any case, often vilified for daring to draw attention to the injustices that many would have us deny.

It requires the re-education of our community about our history and our current practices. It needs governments and community leaders to repudiate hateful and aggressive language and behaviour and as Freud described it "the mindlessness of the group mind" which gives people a false sense of superiority, privilege and omnipotence.

We must be alert to the way in which people can take actions as a group which might be unthinkable to them as individuals. Countering racial vilification and propaganda should be part of our responsibilities as citizens. 

We must all take responsibility for our children and our young people so they can develop without the poisonous distortions of racism. We must all act from a recognition of our common humanity, not out of fear. As Freud wrote in his 1931-32 correspondence to Einstein,

All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play the feelings of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians and a generous response to migrants and refugees.

There is everything to gain.


1.Goldhagen, Daniel. (1996) Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Knopf.

2. Lifton, Robert, Jay. (2000) Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, New York: Basic Books.

3. Beevor, Anthony. (2002) Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Penguin Books.

4. James F.Mattil Flashpoints: Guide to World Conflict

5. John Keane (2001) Fear and Democracy. Centre for the Study of New Democracy.

6. Adam Curtis (2004) The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear.

7. George Lakoff (2003) Framing the Dems: How conservatives control political debate and how progressives can take it back. The American Prospect, September 1.

8. Burke, Anthony. (2001). In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety, Sydney: Pluto Press.

9. David Day (2005) Conquest: A New History of the Modern World. Harper Collins.

10. Andrew Markus (2001) Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia. Allen & Unwin.

11. Dodson, M & Strelein, L. Australia's nation-building: Renegotiating the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the State. UNSW Law Journal, 24 (3), 2001, 826- 830, p 826.

12. Evidence to Senate Select Committee investigating a "Certain Maritime Incident", April 17, 2002, p 1151-1152.

13. Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin.

14. Entman, R.M.(1992). "Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism, and Cultural Change." Journalism Quarterly, 69: 341.

15. Lipkus, I. M., Dalbert, C., & Siegler, I. C. (1996). The importance of distinguishing the belief in a just world for self versus for others: Implications for psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(7), 666-677.

The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation