23/09/2016 5:01 PM AEST | Updated 23/09/2016 5:02 PM AEST

Fear Is Not A Sustainable Call To Action

Let's revisit history to improve our future.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

This week our Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection fronted a special meeting of the United Nations in New York, using the meeting to promote their government's immigration and refugee policy.

Defending Australia's policies to other world leaders, Mr Turnbull argued that our strict border control policies were necessary to manage public concerns and develop public confidence in the migration program.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Dutton also defended the policies, stating that: "These policies and practices were not developed from a basis of fear".

Contrary to these claims, Australia's immigration and border control policies were not developed in a climate of public confidence and support. Instead, the success of John Howard's hard line reconfiguration of Australian immigration rested on a deliberately executed campaign of fear.

So let's re-visit history.

In his 2001 election campaign launch speech, former Prime Minister John Howard declared "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." It is unclear whether Mr Howard knew then that he was, in effect, repeating the mantra espoused some 200 years earlier by Dr Richard Arthur, founder of the Immigration League, who argued that: "we may fill up this empty continent, before it is too late, with people of our own choosing".

Arthur's contention that Australia's population should be handpicked became the catch-cry of the Howard Government during the election campaign. Held just three weeks after the September 11 attacks on the United States, and six weeks after the Tampa incident in which a Norwegian freighter carrying Afghan asylum seekers was intercepted and denied entry into Australian waters, Howard's campaign deliberately painted all refugees and asylum seekers as queue jumpers who represented a threat to Australian security.

Shortly after Tampa, another incident, the so-called "children overboard" affair, saw the former Prime Minister accuse Iraqi asylum seekers of deliberately throwing their children overboard and presented them as a threat to Australian family values. Howard's message of insecurity became the centre-piece of a campaign built on exploiting long-held fears and deep-seated anxieties about border invasion and the need to protect the imagined cultural boundaries of our nation-state.

In 2001, the Liberal party, led by John Howard, rode to victory on a wave of fear and insecurity.

Political fear is by no means novel. Governments have used fear as a powerful tool to gain public support for campaigns and policies that would otherwise be unpopular. But the use of political fear to gain public support is not the same, and should never be mistaken for, developing public confidence.

The politics of fear is an affront to democracy and we must not allow it to become a normalised part of our political process. Public confidence should rely on bringing communities into the decision making process through consultation. That is why we have Members of Parliament who, like myself, are elected to represent their electorates' views in the decision making process. Manipulating those views and opinions by appealing to our most fundamental of emotions (fear), risks denying ourselves the power to offer real solutions to real issues. When we bind ourselves to fear, we become unable to see real grievances and address the issues that underlie those fears.

But fear can only ever be a temporary binder -- useful for election campaigns and vote scoring -- but it is never a sustainable call to action. Being a representative, a good representative, requires strong moral leadership and an ability to bring out the best in people. I saw much of that in Parliament last week as I listened to the first speeches of our newly elected Members.

Now, more than ever, Australia needs the strong moral leadership that will carry us forward. That leadership can no longer be sustained by appeals to fear and division. Fear seldom generates the unity and energy needed to find solutions to the many issues that pervade us: lack of jobs for our youth, quality education, a fairer society. We need to look elsewhere for these goods -- to the essential decency of all Australians and their ability to see fear for what it is as well as for what it is not.