Yesterday, the current Defence Minister David Johnston — he of the astute observation that “the secret to a counter-insurgency is to get the bad guys” — announced an open-ended participation in the new Iraq war and stated he had no idea what it would cost. Nor has the government indicated how the commitment would be paid for, although tax rises were subsequently ruled out this morning. Australia’s modest participation in the 2003 Iraq debacle cost around $2.4 billion; the Prime Minister has suggested this current round will cost much less, around $500 million, but that appears to assume Islamic State will be quickly “degraded and destroyed” solely by an air campaign that is being criticised as ineffective by Kurdish forces (echoing John McCain) and that has caused a surge in recruitment for IS.
Normally, a minister announcing a commitment costing hundreds of millions of dollars, with no spending or timing constraints and no offsetting savings, is savaged both by the opposition and media commentators. Instead, the political class processed Johnston’s statement as related to the War on Terror, which removes it from the traditional framing of fiscal responsibility. All the opposition could say was that it was “not giving a blank cheque” to Johnston; the usual lamentations of fiscal indiscipline in the national dailies were curiously absent.
It’s a small example of a bigger problem: why does our governing class — politicians, the media, senior business figures — switch its collective brain off when the conversation switches to terrorism, abandoning vaunted traditions like fiscal responsibility and evidence-based policy in the process?
Consider domestic violence, which kills dozens of women and children a year (and which is every bit as ideologically driven as terrorism). Attorney-General George Brandis, who has carriage of the issue of “family violence”, last week angrily dismissed my comparison of the overreaction to the “existential” threat of Islamic State and the very real threat of murder at the hands of their partners and parents that women and children face. Gerard Henderson on the weekend tried to insist domestic violence was a state matter; not merely is “family violence” within Brandis’ responsibilities (given the obvious link between family law and domestic violence) and not merely is terrorism also a “state matter”, but Tony Abbott himself committed further federal funds to a National Action Plan on domestic violence just three months ago, saying “as policy makers, we have a responsibility to ensure that perpetrators should have nowhere to hide, nor victims reason to hide”. Hardly just a “state matter”.
Or consider indigenous health, which no one would claim is merely a “state matter”. As Crikey has previously explained, indigenous Australians suffer diabetes at around seven times the incidence of non-indigenous Australians; if we lowered the incidence to merely twice the incidence of non-indigenous Australians, we could have saved over 1200 people in the last decade.
Reducing domestic violence or improving indigenous health are complex problems that have withstood previous efforts to solve them. But that’s the same as terrorism, which requires us to send fighters and special forces halfway round the world to a country we invaded, occupied and then left years ago in order to deal with.
What’s going through the collective mind of the political class when it misprioritises issues so blatantly?
“The only way out of this self-reinforcing system of Stupid, ultimately, is to break it by ending the unrepresentative dominance of people like me in the political class, and replacing us with people more representative of the lived experience of Australians.”
There are, obviously, incentives to treat terrorism as a greater threat than it is: conservative politicians use national security as a wedge issue against progressive opponents; the hyping of terrorism enables a struggling media to appear relevant to consumers; terrorism is used to justify a massive expansion in government power at the expense of citizens, and military conflict is good for large, influential corporations like defence contractors. In contrast, few large corporations make money from addressing domestic violence; no powerful business lobbies exist to promote the interests of those treating indigenous health.
But more important is who makes up the political class: mostly older white males. I’m accused of racism and ageism when I point this out (though an older white male myself; presumably I’m a “self-hating older white male”), but that complaint merely reflects an unwillingness to grapple with the implications of the political dominance of an unrepresentative demographic. Politics remains mostly composed of men, despite the efforts of the Labor Party in producing a number of female first ministers; the Liberal Party has actually gone backwards in terms of female representation. Politics is also strongly white, although the Liberal Party has a slightly less abysmal history of indigenous representation than their opponents. Around 70% of major party MPs and senators are white males, nearly all are over 40; Cabinet has only one woman in it, and its average age is 53. The media, even more so than politics, is controlled almost entirely by older white males in television, radio and print; Australia’s prominent media chairmen average 77 years of age and their CEOs (also all male) 57.
Accordingly, issues that have little impact on older white males receive less attention from the governing class. Domestic violence does affect adult males, but the vast majority of victims, especially of homicides, are women and children. Indigenous women, and women with disabilities, suffer an even higher incidence of domestic violence than other women. So domestic violence is virtually a non-issue for the older white males who control Australia; they experience it far less and have far less first-hand knowledge of it (some will have experienced it as children, and perhaps some even as perpetrators). Similarly, indigenous health issues present as another component of the intractable problems of indigenous Australians, rather than something of first-hand experience for middle-aged white men, many of whom would know few indigenous Australians.
As a result, our political class comes to such issues without personal experience, and its members need a specific prompting to acquire an interest. Tony Abbott, for example, is virtually unique among his peers in having made a serious, long-term effort to acquaint himself first-hand with the challenges of indigenous communities.
What about terrorism? Few members of Australia’s political class have first-hand experience of terrorism. But they see terrorism as a threat in a way that domestic violence, or indigenous health problems, or other causes of deaths of Australians in which low-income or marginalised citizens are overrepresented, are not. Parliament House in Canberra, for example, spent most of last week in an onanistic flap over strengthening security at one of the more secure non-military buildings in the country. Terrorism is perceived to target powerful males in a way that domestic violence, or indigenous health, or even run-of-the-mill violent crime, never could.
Politicians also see in terrorism a threat to their interests, as well as an opportunity. Having built terrorism up into a major threat to the lives of Western citizens, politicians are stuck in a self-reinforcing cycle in which any perceived weakness in relation to terrorism is politically toxic. Even to admit the blindingly obvious — that attacks on Muslim countries in the name of the War on Terror merely help enrage and radicalise whole new generations of extremists — is to risk being seen as soft, like those who suggest it might be a good idea to try to understand what is radicalising people in the first place. The result: politicians who talk in soundbites of pure idiocy: “they hate us for our freedom”; “we must stay the course”; “get the bad guys”.
The only way out of this self-reinforcing system of Stupid, ultimately, is to break it by ending the unrepresentative dominance of people like me in the political class, and replacing us with people more representative of the lived experience of Australians. That doesn’t mean political leaders who aren’t older white males won’t combat terrorism or join wars, but it does mean that wilful refusal to deal with actual threats to Australian lives won’t be because they’re simply outside the experience or interest of an unrepresentative political, media and corporate elite.