The politics of fear

How scare tactics can influence public opinion

John Hewson

Government and governance, National security | Australia

6 July 2015

From fears about new taxes to worries about the threat posed by terrorists, politicians are all-too-quick to employ scare tactics to shape public opinion, writes John Hewson.

In many ways the 1993 Australian Federal Election was dominated by the politics of fear. I was subjected to a massive scare campaign over the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the likely impacts on families of my heath policy.

The essence of a fear or ‘scare’ campaign is to make, and incessantly repeat, seriously outrageous claims and predictions to cause voters to figure that “it’s not worth taking the risk” with this policy, this Party, or these individuals, or some combination of all of the above.

In 1993, the likely impacts of the GST, seen as a “new tax”, were all too easily exaggerated, either on particular groups or industries. This was despite the overly generous compensation package, and a host of other benefits in the overall Fightback package.

Similarly, claims, via leaflets in letterbox drops, or via media advertising, could be easily made that it “would cost Mum and two kids some $90 to visit a doctor”, even though there would be no cost impact at all!

It was all too easy to convince voters of the likely or projected negatives, while casting doubt that the positives, including compensation and tax cuts, let alone the national benefits, would ever be delivered.

In more recent times, we have seen a host of examples of the politics of fear, from both sides of politics, and not always by the Opposition.

For example, the ease and speed with which the Howard Government was able to commit us to an illegal war in the Middle East, post September 11.

Again, the whole issue of border security was initially run by those in Government to stir up electoral concern and fear, in an attempt to justify a hard line on asylum seekers/boat people – “we need to determine who should come to our country and in what circumstances”.

While the Opposition has at times tried to adopt a more humane approach, this has easily been turned against them;  they were seen to be supporting boat arrivals and people smugglers, and drownings at sea. This happened so effectively that the Right Wing of the ALP is now agitating that at their next Party Congress they should support the Government’s boat turn-back policy.

Most recently, we have the Abbott Government deliberately attempting to strike fear in our lives with threats such as “ISIS are coming to get us” while, somewhat hypocritically, enjoining us to “remain calm”, “to get on with our lives”, to “not give the terrorists a win” by running in fear, by changing our lifestyle.

While the Opposition has been ducking and weaving around the detail of the Government’s response, and the detail of its anti-terrorist legislation, this is little more than posturing. Their focus groups are giving them pretty much the same responses and messages as those to the Government.  In the end, they will essentially support the Government.

How bad is it, when both major parties join in a fear campaign at the expense of genuine, evidence-based policy debate?

In the past, we ended up seriously involved in an illegal war in Iraq, and then a war in Afghanistan, all based on fear rather than hardheaded and objective analysis in our national interest.

How fast are we drifting into another war against ISIS? All informed military analysis and comment seems to suggest that bombing raids, and training sessions with Iraqi troops, will not defeat ISIS. It will take a concerted military effort on the ground, over and above the Iraqis.

Will we let the politics of fear also drag us into this one, with further senseless loss of Australian lives?

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