Howard, Haneef and the Fear Factor


Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

‘Just when you thought it was safe to return to the water ‘ warned the tag-line for the thriller Jaws 2 in 1978.

It may as well be the slogan for John Howard’s forthcoming election campaign.

For the first half of this year, it appeared that concern over the global ‘War on Terror’ was subsiding and giving way to the global war on climate change, at least as front page news. We were beginning to focus on a different threat that transcended national and religious boundaries.

Howard appeared to be on the back foot, and far from winning the public debate. As Foreign Minister Alexander Downer sarcastically reminded us, the Government cannot determine the timing of terrorist plots or boatloads of asylum seekers: ‘We did not arrange for the people smugglers to send people at that [Tampa] time.’

But our political leaders can determine how high such stories should be on the public agenda and consciousness. By fanning the flames of fear, the temperature is heightened, and the story remains front page news.

In the case of Dr Mohamed Haneef, the swift stroke of a pen by Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews on 16 July amounted to intervention not only with the judicial process, but with the public imagination. What was implicit in Andrews’s decision to revoke Haneef’s work visa was the message, ‘you can only trust us‘ as if only this Government can be trusted to be thorough in screening out ‘dangerous’ characters. And therefore, only this Government must stay in power so that the rest of us can all sleep soundly at night, while tireless Ministers, bureaucrats and officers sacrifice their sleep to keep us all safe.

That decision to keep the doctor detained was probably supposed to attract our cheers, not criticism. Similarly, when Prime Minister Howard was trumpeting about the detention of Haneef under the new anti-terrorist laws ‘I’m happy with the laws because I sponsored them’ he said again, he was expecting cheers not criticism. But politicians are elected leaders, not religious clergy in whom we might decide to place our blind faith.

It appears that even the traditionally trusted ‘men in white’ medical doctors who save lives can be demonised by politicians, shaking our comfort zone and moral compass regarding whom we should and should not trust. And Howard’s justification for pushing the ‘you can only trust us’ message:

I’d say to the Australian public, we are living in different circumstances. Terrorists don’t abide by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. We maintain the rule of law, but we have to have different rules applying that law to face different circumstances.

Howard is in his own comfort zone with the ‘War on Terror’ he has mastered the art of scaremongering about home-grown bogeymen in our midst and his campaign has warned us to ‘be alert but not alarmed.’ The only antidote to the terror cells ostensibly breeding in our backyards was to keep Howard in office. He alone could keep them at bay and have the disease arrested at its early stages.

But the string of alarms and false alarms about potential terrorists should have been clustered under a different campaign: ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’ This was the tag-line for 1986 thriller The Fly, which, ironically, terrified audiences with a dark metamorphosis where some humans become more like animals.

The Prime Minister’s opportunism during the Haneef saga may have been driven by his own horror movie the ailing opinion polls showing he is no longer preferred Prime Minister. With only months before a Federal election, Howard desperately needed to be scoring points and kicking with the wind. Predictably, he played his ‘politics of fear’ card hoping to harness the breeze of public opinion and put terrorism back on the front pages: Just when you thought it was safe to trust Muslims again … you can’t even trust doctors!

Howard knows from the polls that on issues of national security he is still preferred Prime Minister. And sure enough, Howard managed to reduce the Opposition to a ‘me too’ caricature.

The vindication of Dr Haneef will result in a collective sigh of relief for many Muslims, who have observed the gross injustice served on this young father, and where an unnecessary climate of paranoia has prevailed, thanks to his incarceration.

Too many Muslim Australians have panicked and asked whether this is the new Australia where any one of them could be incriminated for their association with a relative who subsequently becomes a terror suspect. It is very common that relatives in Australia send gifts, accessories and utensils to their relatives ‘back home’ in developing countries.

The bow for the poison arrow had never been stretched so far before. Muslim parents were understandably anxious that an allegation connecting a ‘Mohamed’ with terrorism may be deemed immediately credible as if all Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. My professional colleagues have been anxious that their children who plan to study medicine may endure a similar ordeal because of their recognizable Muslim names.

The recent release of Dr Haneef is not only a victory for his legal team, but indeed a victory for the Australian fair go, the rule of law and a sense of justice. It is this redemption that should be celebrated and cheered.

Yes we should be ‘very afraid’, but not of overseas doctors or Muslims in our midst. We should be very afraid of the people who keep pleading with us that ‘you can only trust us.’ They have tried unsuccessfully to manipulate our moral compass but, in the process, they have betrayed our trust.

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.