“It’s coming after us.” Like a modern day horror movie, this was the Australian prime minister’s theatrical response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in the aftermath of the triple onslaught in Kuwait, France, and Tunisia. The attacks, he says, “illustrates once again, that as far as the Daesh [ISIL] death cult is concerned, it’s coming after us”.
If you are Tony Abbott, you seize upon every opportunity to talk about national security.
But what a difference four short months can make. The prime minister has found the golden gun, a policy so infused with his power and authority, and deemed so important to national security and Australian nationalism that it has stunned the political opposition into submission. They can do nothing, it seems, other than blindly follow his lead.
National security issues have descended into a political blood sport in which the conservative coalition is motivated not solely by the need to secure the borders and fight the terrorists but by the desire to score political points.
A leaked briefing document showed the political chicanery in play whereby the government’s controversial citizenship legislation was to be invigorated by its potential to cause harm to the government’s opponents.
So, how do you make a nation so scared that they will support increasing draconian legislation that limits the rights of all citizens? Well, if you are Tony Abbott, you seize upon every opportunity to talk about national security. You talk about terrorism, border security, the threat posed by Islamic fighters – and you talk about it incessantly.
You could dismiss this as political gamesmanship but in the increasingly high stakes political arena that is edging towards the possibility of an early election, is there a risk that the government is over-stating the threat posed? Just how great is the risk to Australia from ISIL and foreign fighters?
Like many Western nations, a whole industry has emerged to discuss and dissect the motivations of foreign fighters but the actual figures remain opaque. While it is understandable that counting the numbers of men and women who have left Australia to fight with ISIL is an imprecise science, the available figures vary widely.
The Australian government security services estimate that around 150 to 250 fighters have left to fight for ISIL. However, the most rigorous independent analysis puts the figure much lower, at just 54 Australian fighters currently in Iraq and Syria. The April 2015 Lowy Institute poll uses open source data and, as such, is not privy to all information collected by Australia’s security services. However, the disparity in the figures is alarming. Given the frenzied media coverage given to any proven or suspected foreign fighter, it is unclear how the government’s figures could be five times higher than the figures taken from open source data.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has used the government figures to issue an alarming warning. Australia, she says, is the highest contributor per capita of foreign fighters to the Middle East.
It is a startling statistic, but how accurate is it? If you are politicking largely on the promise of keeping Australia safe, does it not suit your political objectives if Australians feel unsafe?
Armed with this startling information, Australia has launched a crackdown on terrorism fostered within its borders. Increasingly punitive legislation is being introduced with little scrutiny and with largely bipartisan political support. Last week, legislation was put before parliament that would strip the citizenship of dual nationals caught fighting overseas or convicted of terrorism offences at home.
But the prime minister wants to go further and has suggested suspending certain rights of foreign fighters even if they are sole Australian citizens.
“Fighting for a terrorist group at war with Australia is the modern form of treason,” he said, “and those who have left our country to fight against us may require a modern form of banishment”.
So while Abbott’s conservatives hope to send all those suspected of fighting overseas either to prison or condemn them to exile, a lonely few are willing to protest, propose alternatives or even suggest that this very plan may further marginalise or embolden those with such fanatical motivations.
What seems clear is that in matters of national security, there is a stifled debate and too little scrutiny. The self-serving politics of survival has kicked in and now fear and loathing has won out.
Anneliese Mcauliffe is a journalist who has worked across Asia and the Middle East for the past two decades for the BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC and the Associated Press. She has worked extensively in both Indonesia and Australia.