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Too many politicians are willing to advance their careers in this good-hearted country by making the rest of us afraid.

When our leaders call for fresh powers to meet fresh dangers we nearly always agree.

We are in a panic again. This golden country, so prosperous, so intelligent , so safe and orderly, is afraid of refugees arriving in fishing boats. This is the great Australian fear, one that never really goes away. Hearts are hardened. Terrible things are done in the name of protecting the nation. It is not the first wave of boats and won’t be the last, but the politics are more rancorous than ever.

Panic has been with us from the start. It is so Australian. Panic over the Chinese was the midwife of federation and we have been swept by waves of panic ever since. What were they all about? It’s a mark of panics that once they die down they seem, looking back, unconvincing and even comic.

The past 15 years have seen Australia in states of exaggerated alarm over native title, Muslim preachers, Muslim rapists, drugs, terrorists foreign and home grown, demonstrators in the streets and pictures of naked children on gallery walls. But we end the decade as we began in a full-scale panic over refugees coming here – as they reach countries all over the world – uninvited in little boats.

When I was reporting the mad uproar over Bill Henson’s photographs a couple of years ago, it came to me I’ve been writing about panics all my career: how they are whipped up, do their worst and disappear leaving only wreckage behind.

Perhaps I’m alert to the subject because I’m gay. When I was growing up, preachers, police, politicians and the press were still keeping panic alive about people like me. It has left me despising panic merchants, particularly those Tory fearmongers who represent themselves as guardians of decency. The politicians I most admire are those who hold their nerve in the face of irrational fear on the rampage.

I’ve come to believe that the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between right and left as panic and calm. This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties. It’s about the willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.

They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this goodhearted country by making us afraid. These panic attacks can be exhilarating in their own way, but they leave behind damaged people and a damaged country.

I was a kid journalist in 1975. My heart was with Whitlam even as I watched his government fall to pieces. His defeat was inevitable but his opponents wanted him out at once. To that end, a mighty panic was beaten up in the press, in Parliament and at the big end of town. By October 1975, a deeply conservative paper such as The Sydney Morning Herald was unashamedly calling on its front page for the overthrow of a government.

Two lessons were there to be learnt about the politics of panic: how willing conservative politicians in this country are to toy with disorder, and how popular that can be. Whitlam’s dismissal by the governor-general was endorsed overwhelmingly at the ballot box. But who except a few monarchists and Liberal hacks are left willing to defend 1975?

Panics can’t be whipped up out of nothing. They must have something at their heart that really matters. Panics are reasonable fears twisted out of all recognition. A decent face has to be put on the passions aroused. Appearances count. Language matters.

Skilled panic merchants find ways of suggesting, however vaguely, that the survival of the nation is at stake – not always the integrity of its territory but its heart, its health, its spirit, its way of life. The argument always is that desperate times require tough laws and strong leadership. Panic is a rallying cry for power.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a low moment for old panic-mongers . Communism had been a great gift to panic in this country, keeping the right people in power for a long, long time. There was much to fear in and after World War II from communist espionage, treason and industrial mayhem. But fear of the Red Menace was kept alive in this country long after the party was spent.

Energetic attempts in the Howard years to ignite fears about the agenda of the Left – particularly of lefties entrenched in the “taxpayerfunded ” ABC, universities and museums – failed to excite the public . The Red Menace was utterly exhausted. In the end, communism even betrayed its detractors.

Race took its place. The discovery of native title by the High Court in 1992 let loose across the country wild fears and old hatreds that had not died down when the judges delivered a second shock in 1996: first Mabo and then Wik. Pauline Hanson surfed both waves of panic to a series of political victories that briefly turned her One Nation Party into a third force in national politics.

John Howard dealt in the same panics, implacably opposed to Mabo and determined to cut Wik to the core. By the time Australia calmed down over native title in the late 1990s, the prime minister was more firmly entrenched in power than ever and the redhead from Ipswich was a spent force. When it came to playing the panic game, one was a professional and the other an amateur.

Australians aren’t much impressed by great abstractions such as justice and liberty. We are an orderly, practical people. We trust our politicians. We expect them to look after us. When they call for fresh powers to meet fresh dangers we nearly always agree to their demands. The warnings of lawyers and the civil liberties brigade don’t have much traction.

September 11, 2001, and the London bombings in 2005 provoked Howard to introduce – and Labor to support – a radical regime of secret detention without charge or trial; house arrest and control orders without charge; detention of witnesses for questioning; covert surveillance of non-suspects ; blocking the access of lawyers to evidence; criminalising anti-war protest and extending the reach of already shadowy sedition laws.

Yet using those laws can be dangerous for their backers. Injustices we can’t grasp in the abstract are clear enough to Australians in practice . We didn’t need any convincing that the jailing of the Gold Coast doctor Mohamed Haneef was very wrong indeed. It helped unseat a police commissioner and was another blow to the already ragged reputation of the prime minister.

In the face of panic, the courts in this country have a mixed record. When the mob is restless and the shock jocks are howling for action, judges are supposed to stay aloof, focus on the facts and be guided by principle alone. But judges aren’t immune from irrational fears. The noise of the mob too often reaches the courtroom.

For a long time, the High Court gave its seal of approval to the cruel and unusual measures Australia put in place to punish and deter refugees arriving in this country by boat. After the court signed off on mandatory detention in the early 1990s, a parallel prison system for refugees grew up in this country. Had the judges brought calm to this issue then, governments of all stripes would be looking back now with profound gratitude.

But the mood of the court has shifted . Late in 2010, with fears of the boats running high, the court came to the unanimous conclusion that everyone detained in the system had to be treated fairly and according to law. In August 2011, the court made a decision as radical and as simple: any asylum seekers we send away to another country for processing must have the same rights up there they would have had down here.

This might have been a moment for taking stock, for calming down. Instead the court’s decision provoked political uproar with the opposition driving and the government driven by this defining panic.

The fears of the most fearful Australians cannot be ignored in a democracy . They must be decently addressed. But what gives Australian politics its particular flavour is the willingness of Labor and the Coalition to indulge fears they haven’t the courage or the will to contest. These come and go. Old fears recycled work their magic over and over again. We don’t seem to learn.

Yet most Australians are not fearful . According to the polls we are on the whole optimistic, open and accepting. Even so, at every election since the mid-1990 s – Kevin Rudd’s victory in 2007 being the only exception – the mandate of the fearful has decided who governs Australia.

Radio, television and newspapers are so often the friends of panic. There’s a cynical old saying that the purpose of tabloid journalism is to maintain a perpetual state of false alarm. My years at Media Watch were largely spent investigating those alarms and becoming, in the process, enthralled by the leading panic merchants of the media: Piers Akerman, young Andrew Bolt and the indestructible Alan Jones. There is another old adage about tabloids: that their purpose is to persuade the working class to vote Tory. I once put this to Bob Carr. He replied, “I think it is incontrovertible.”

Politicians who deal in panic wear out their welcome. The grubby business of terrifying the electorate over and over again takes its toll. Howard was the most professional politician I expect to see at work in my lifetime, and nothing was more professional than his manipulation of Australia’s fears.

But a decade of this left him rather shop-worn . So many scares had come and gone, failing to deliver on their bleak promises. His last days in office caught the disenchantment perfectly. Sydney was locked down for a gathering of world leaders – and into this great security panic drove a team of comedians in Arab dress. Howard looked foolish. Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can’t take a joke.

Under other parties and different leaders we soldier on, the same country we’ve always been: a wonderful place but gullible at times. We trust our leaders but that trust is not always repaid. As Australia grows inexorably more prosperous and progressive and relaxed, the forces of reaction have to work a little harder to frighten us from time to time – just enough to make it difficult to imagine how much better life might be if we were ruled more often than not by good sense, order and calm.

This is an edited extract from Panic, by David Marr, published by Black Inc. RRP $29.95. Another appears in tomorrow’s Sun-Herald .

Copyright © 2011 The Sydney Morning Herald