The Politics of Fear


As election night drew to a close, Andrew Wilkie, the intelligence expert who resigned from the Office of National Assessments (ONA) in protest as the Iraq war began, took the podium at the Epping club in Sydney to thank his audience of supporters and friends.

Wilkie, one of the forty-three retired military chiefs and diplomats who accused the Howard Government of dishonesty over the Iraq war, looked tired after a long campaign contesting John Howard’s seat of Bennelong.

As he began Wilkie and his audience were distracted by the ABC broadcast of election results on a big screen to the side of the room.

The results showed Wilkie taking 16.6 per cent of the vote in Bennelong and the room erupted into deafening cheers. Amongst a forest of raised clapping hands, the furry paws of the Rodent— the animal-suited protester who dogged Howard during the campaign — clapped along excitedly with everyone else.

‘Don’t leave here tonight despondent’, Wilkie urged. ‘When the history of these years is written that history will damn John Howard.’

Standing before a wall of green TRUTH Vote 1 WILKIE signs, the Greens candidate described the swing against the Prime Minister as an extraordinary achievement.

‘If you take into account the three and a half percent swing to the Liberal party nationally and the three and a half against him in Bennelong, John Howard has taken a hit of seven per cent tonight.’

Wilkie comes across as an ordinary Australian bloke belying, perhaps deliberately, his thinking abilities as an intelligence analyst. In conversation, he carefully emphasises the complexities of events and their causes and takes time to weigh up ideas in a manner that is slightly ponderous.

‘There were three reasons for acting the way I did’, he says about his decision to resign from ONA. ‘Personal ethics, privileged access — I realised I was probably the most informed person in the country on the issue — and a sense of personal freedom.’

‘I mean, it’s cost me, but I wasn’t afraid to take a risk where others might be more afraid’, he says.

Wilkie was perplexed, as the election campaign unfolded, as to why the issue of Iraq didn’t rate as highly as he had hoped. ‘I’ve thought about it more, as we’ve come to the end of the campaign and, I think, mainly, it’s the lack of casualties, but there are other reasons, of course.’

In the campaign’s final week, Howard was asked to respond to the announcement by Charles Duelfer, the chief UN arms inspector in Iraq, that the Iraq Survey Group had found neither weapons of mass destruction, nor significant WMD production programmes at the time of the invasion.

‘It’s been the finding of both the Jull Inquiry and the Flood Inquiry that no influence was exerted on the intelligence agencies. There was no massaging by ministers of that intelligence’, Howard said.

Which is ‘a downright lie’ according to Wilkie.

‘The words used by Flood himself said that the intelligence agencies gave the Government "cautious and qualified advice". They turned that advice into a case for war.’

Howard, a man who considers it a virtue to not appear intellectual, knows his Machiavelli innately. Take, for instance, this from chapter 18 of The Prince:

So simple-minded are men and so controlled by immediate necessities that a prince who deceives will always find men who let themselves be deceived.

‘I don’t want to overstate the sense of freedom I felt to act’, Wilkie says of his actions, although he writes about the move as a step into the abyss. ‘But, for me, it was a question of ethics. Everyone has a threshold’, he says measuring the air with his hand, ‘and my threshold was the invasion of another country without legal authority because that’s about as bad as it gets.’

Satisfied with the votes he took from Howard in his own electorate — making Bennelong one of the most marginal of Liberal electorates — the Greens candidate understands that many Australians may have been afraid to vote against Howard because of the Government’s scare campaign on interest rates: Machiavelli’s ‘immediate necessities’.

‘In their hearts they may have wanted to vote otherwise but when it came down to it they believed it was too much of a risk’, he says.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.