Essay

What rough beast

BEN BUCKLER IS one of those secret places you can find in any large city, a space within a space, with its own microclimate and way of life. Three streets on a headland at the north end of Bondi Beach; it is bounded by the long sweep of the bay to the south and a cliff-top golf course to the north. The headland is densely developed with old apartment blocks slowly crumbling into the sandstone, ravaged by the afternoon sun and the fierce southerlies that blow through on a regular basis. Despite the high densities – there are thousands of people calling Ben Buckler home – it feels neither crowded nor put upon, unlike the grid of the streets behind Bondi's famous tourist strip where many residents of the headland refuse to tread during the height of summer.

Property prices are high in this discrete little village. The gardens of Ben Buckler's apartments and houses are quiet and well shaded by some surprisingly thick tangles of scrub and backyard bush. You don't get into the low end of the market for less than three quarters of a million dollars. And that won't get you much more than a shabby two-bedroom apartment. A bus terminal provides fast, reliable transport to the city for the headland's community of creatives and managers, while about the terminal, a cluster of shops and cafes provides enough amenity to make the 10-minute walk down the hill into Bondi proper an irregular event.

There is a cafe just around the corner from the tiny shopping centre where many of the locals can be caught recharging the batteries with a caffeine hit after a morning swim. It has an excellent menu and competition for space is fierce on the weekends. The customers do not hail from a demographic John Howard and his hard men would normally bother with. There are a lot of un-Australian latte drinkers around these parts, a lot of bleeding hearts and postgraduate nonbelievers. And yet, even here in the heart of global Sydney, the power of an appeal to the darker angels of our nature does not fall upon deaf ears.

In the middle of the crisis manufactured from the approach of the MV Tampa and its cargo of wretched souls to our shores, three paid-up members of the city's much-maligned 'elites' sat in that cafe knocking back the espressos and working through the cause célèbre of border protection with flint-hearted alacrity. Their groovy Celtic tattoos and expensive dreadlocks meant nothing. The young woman told her two male companions it was a good thing the Government had dispatched the navy to see off these de facto invaders because 'we might actually have to machine-gun a few of them' so they got the message that they were not wanted. Her friends seemed comfortable and relaxed with that.

It was a telling scene, not because of the crude ugliness of feeling behind their conversation, but because it verified the power of that fear and loathing the Government's strategists had tapped into with the issue. The fear of the other that underlay the Tampa crisis was not restricted to what we might call the Hanson coalition of conservative blue-collar workers and the underclasses of the outer metropolitan housing estates. It was a deep societal anxiety that manifested itself across all age groups, genders and, tellingly, even across ethnicities. The Government blundered into the Tampa crisis and many of its early reactions spoke more of ineptitude and stuff-up than actual conspiracy. But as the potential of the Tampa to divide and isolate the Labor Party became obvious, ministers and their advisers moved to ruthlessly exploit the development.

Whether the Tampa delivered the election for John Howard is moot. He had been fighting a desperate rearguard action for months and was gaining traction well before the vessel arrived. But it is an undeniable fact that the juxtaposition of two events, the Tampa and the September 11 atrocities, fundamentally altered the national temper, injecting deep fear about events on the grand stage of history directly into the Australian body politic.

IN SETTLED, PROSPEROUS and peaceful democracies it is rare for parochial concerns to be overshadowed by great events. Bill Clinton's mantra, 'It's the economy, stupid', normally holds true. But peace and prosperity are not givens. For most of human history a Hobbesian state of nature was the norm, with all ceaselessly at war against each other. The engine of politics was largely driven by fear, hatred and the 'will to power'.

The same subterranean currents still course through our politics. They are easily discerned in white Australian history, almost always revolving around questions of race, even when race is irrelevant. This is not to argue that Australia is an inherently racist society. All human societies are inherently predisposed towards fears of the other. It is rather to identify a recurring theme in Australian political history: the importance of fear itself as a pole around which political energies can gather to be used for either good or ill.

It might seem odd that fear might ever have a positive, utilitarian function but it can, in extremis. The fear of national annihilation at the hands of Imperial Japan galavanised Australian society into a productive reordering of its political, economic and military systems which simply would not have been possible without the existence of an external terror. Indeed, the lingering dread of extinction underlay the success of Australia's massive postwar migration scheme, which saw an insular, unsophisticated, avowedly racist country transformed into a global cosmopolitan community within two generations. The self-image of the Australian establishment in 1939 was Protestant and Anglo-Saxon. The brute realities of geopolitics saw that treasured vision abandoned in favour of a broader, multi-ethnic European, Christian society, which in turn evolved into the modern, secular, multiracial nation. Fear of "the Nip" thus led by a long and winding path to the ideas of Aboriginal reconciliation and multiculturalism.

The negative power of political fear, however, can be seen in faux crises like the Tampa and eerily familiar predecessors – such as the boat people crisis of the 1980s; the Italian scares of the 1920s and '30s; the violent anti-Chinese riots of the 1870s; and the Irish terror that seized hold of elite opinion at various stages from the first days of white settlement and well into 20th century. Scan the biographies of many founding fathers and you will find a rogues' gallery of stirrers and demagogues only too willing to throw petrol on the bonfire of prejudice.

Henry Parkes, for instance, arguably one of the nation's greatest statesmen, was ever alert to the political advantages of slandering the Irish or the Chinese on any given issue. And in Parkes's heyday, the latter half of the 19th century, to stir up such passions did not mean to move percentage points up or down in an opinion poll. It meant inflaming the rage of violent mobs, which were more than capable of running amok with fatal results.

The first elections held in Sydney degenerated into a series of vicious street battles between nominally Catholic and Protestant mobs, with mounted charges by the authorities to break up the worst of the rabble. Homes were invaded, shops looted and one man was bashed to death near Central railway. A few years later, greater damage and loss of life attended the eruption of racial conflict on the goldfields and in the cities when the arrival of thousands of Chinese goldminers inflamed racial anxieties and touched off murderous pogroms like that at Lambing Flat. The disturbances recurred again in the 1870s over the issue of whether Chinese sailors would be allowed to work on steamships in the tropics.

Accounts of the time make for enjoyably risible reading now. Civic authorities addressed large meetings of angry working men, where the 'moral pestilence' of the Chinese race was invoked with descriptions of the bizarre sexual practices they were known to perform on the white women they enslaved with opium. Other speakers swore that they had seen Chinese men eating dead dogs and even human babies. The rhetoric seems funny only in retrospect. At the time it was responsible for touching off yet more bloodshed, destruction and misery.

 

MAINSTREAM AUSTRALIA IS not so easily given to riot nowdays. But nor is it immune to constructed panic. It is instructive to dwell briefly on the some of the recurring parallels in these outbreaks of national hysterics. Some are intriguing but obvious. For instance, powerful but entirely fictitious images of child abuse recur throughout. The Government's 'children overboard' plug into the same visceral energies as reports of children in the cooking pots of 19th-century Chinese migrants.

At another level, the policy outcomes of periodic dementia in the body politic are of less moment than the seismic shifts in concentrations of power and political alignment that give rise to them. The expensive contortions of the Government's 'Pacific Solution' will, in the long run, be of as little consequence as Victoria's restrictive migration laws of 1855. The administrative arrangements are, in one sense, immaterial. What counts over the longer term are the serpentine flows and occasional eruptions of mass sentiment that give rise to such arrangements. But those sentiments, so often based on free-floating anxieties of racial eclipse, form an almost inexhaustible supply of potential power.

To understand this it is necessary to accept that political outputs, laws, budgets and programs are less important than the creation and manipulation of mass identities and alliances – for in the creation of such blocs, political leaders gather to themselves fantastic, arcing bands of power, like the ribbons of white energy so beloved of 1930s filmmakers reworking the mythology of Dr Frankenstein's laboratory. In the work of the late American political scientist Murray Edelman, the beliefs of the public as a mass – be they elite or lumpenprole – are not fixed. They are infinitely malleable. The most significant outcomes thus become the manufacture of mass followings and supports. Political manoeuvring becomes an end in itself to evoke arousal or quiescence in the public.

Having evolved past the stage of riot and pillage as a political tool, modern liberal communities nonetheless remain subject to provocateurs with a skill for myth-making. By myths, I don't mean outright falsehoods, but rather Edelman's notion of unquestioned beliefs held in common by a large number of people that give a particular meaning to otherwise complex and bewildering events. These events can often relate to the most intimate of concerns – the safety and security of oneself and one's family. The Tampa came on the scene amid widespread anxiety over a series of gang rapes in western Sydney that appeared to be partly motivated by the disdain of the Muslim-Australian attackers for their Anglo-Australian victims. The mass atrocity of September 11 was a moment of profound discontinuity, separating modern human history into all that came before and after the impact of the airliners.

Where myth and illusion play their parts is in explaining such disturbing and genuinely threatening developments. A violent, bewildering and hostile universe is given meaning by leaders who provide more than just a narrative to explain the events. They offer a course of action designed to 'protect the self and significant others'. In the case of the Tampa that meant the Pacific Solution and the attendant dispatch of significant naval assets to the northern waters. It later became conflated with the War on Terror and the attack on Iraq.

The Pacific Solution and even the military action against Saddam Hussein's regime was of far less consequence than the fears and doubts the so-called refugee crisis first inflamed and then assuaged; because those fears and doubts became so fast-moving and substantial they generated the momentum to sweep a faltering and previously unpopular government back into office even though the "solution" was demonstrably untenable and a waste of valuable resources.

Just as the long-discarded and unlamented migrant laws of the 1850s and '60s gave rise to campaigns for the White Australia policy and the creation of mass support for racist policymaking at a national level, so the legacy of the Tampa will not merely be an abandoned and grotesquely expensive processing centre in Nauru. It will be the militarising of politics and the creation of a mass constituency for the sort of discriminatory and harshly punitive policy and rhetoric that would have been unthinkable less than 10 years ago.

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