Robert McClelland is probably not the dimmest bulb in the Rudd government, but he sure looks it — an owly dopey dad from a US sitcom, blinking beneath a twelve dollar coiffure which looks like it was lowered on to his pate with a fish-hook.

That’s disarming and unfortunately so, because amid the blundering around in the new terror bill, some of it good, some of it, well, terrifying, is this neat little idea about extending the notion of harm to include “psychological harm” arising from an attempted or completed terror attack.

Historians of the future are going to love that one, because it brings together in one swift move, the two dominant repressive forces of our time — the extension of a national security state usually associated with the political right, and the quasi-therapeutic social control of people which has become the hallmark of the “New Labour” left.

Indeed Rudd New Labour — its offices frequently visited and advised by New Labour experts cum refugees — can justly claim that this is the first time it has extended the masterful social control politics of the Blair-Brown era, with something of its own — an open-ended notion of harm whereby stupid or malign non-violent acts, such as calling in a fake bomb threat, can now achieve the status of an actual physical act of terror, because the ‘harm’ was no less real.

The law already allows for this. Calling in a bomb threat can already get you jail, with the penalty determined to a degree by the inconvenience, terror, actual disarray or injury it causes. The crime of assault includes the provision that the threat of violence in itself can constitute assault. But in these and other cases, the notion of harm is predicated on the possibility of actual violence down the road, and seen as subordinate to it. We don’t extend the menace notions of assault into the criminalisation of sarcasm for example — even though the relentless application of such could mess with someone’s head, or in the jargon, do harm.

What McClelland’s bill wants to do is reverse the relationship between physical and psychological harm — essentially the reverse engineering of a crime from the assumptions that the social policy professions that surround labour use to construct their reality. In a world where everyone receives counselling after a nosebleed, every kid has ADD and every incident is a possible cause of PTSD, the notion that people are simply psychological crash-test dummies rather than robust and resilient citizens in a free society comes naturally to Labour.

The core of this logic is implicitly totalitarian, not in an old-fashioned police and camps sort of way, but in a softer fashion in which every aspect of life, inner and outer, is colonised by the state and systems of law, punishment and control. Thus rather than the reaction to an actual terror incident — of which we have had none precisely since 9/11 — being left as a free space whereby some people are freaked out, others take it in stride etc etc, the reaction of citizens to a negative event, McClelland’s idea is that these reactions should be calibrated, measured, analysed and a standardised trauma scenario made the implicit norm. In other words, people are treated not as citizens, but as subjects — i.e. subject to forces shaping them, strapped on the metaphorical gurney being measured.

Such soft totalitarian lawmaking comes naturally to Labour governments when they have largely abandoned the task of tackling inequality and allowing people the space to take more power, rather than simply mitigating the worst effects of an inequality permanently imposed — in the name of ‘nation-building and the creating of a global elite. The “nation-building” language of Rudd and Gillard comes as much from Mussolini’s side as it does from the progressive Labour tradition, and when notions such as McClelland’s idea of psychological harm as a “real” thing is added, then the repressive aspects of the package are complete. Like most of what came out of 2020, its construction by a labour elite inevitably bodies forth a profound contempt for citizens, disguised as overweening concern.

Should this nonsense make it to the final bill, one will watch with interest whether the Coalition have the strength to stick to their liberal traditions and knock it back — or will they be stampeded by the politics of fear, which this law raises to a positive standard.

Don’t hold your breath — others might be worried about you, and that would be a cause of psychological harm. Let’s hope McClelland’s head does something other than support real hair that manages to look like a wig, about as neat a picture of the proposed legislation as you could wish.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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