Issue 3, 2006 | Simon Thackrah

Fear Itself: Carmen Lawrence's Fear and Politics

Carmen Lawrence: Fear and Politics (Scribe: Melbourne, 2006)

I attended a rally in Perth shortly after the 2001 Federal Election to protest what I thought was the government’s shameful policy on asylum seekers. Carmen Lawrence was a speaker, and she articulated with great conviction how immoral the policy was and how wrong her party was to support the government. On the one hand, I admired her guts in confronting her own party; on the other hand, I thought “well, I wish you’d said that before the election!”

The Labor backbencher and Member for Fremantle is certainly not afraid to confront what she later comes to identify as her own past political mistakes, whether as a Labor frontbencher during the first Beazley leadership or as Western Australia’s first female premier in the early 1990s. In her latest book, Fear and Politics, she describes the introduction of mandatory sentencing by her government in response to a horrific accident involving a stolen car driven by a young Aboriginal man. The laws were endorsed by Cabinet while she was overseas, but she acknowledges that “I was the absent premier…and I failed to act to reverse the decision” (58).

Dr Lawrence is of the breed of politician whose views seem to have become more radical over time, and this book gives a snapshot of her views on the big moral issues facing Australia in 2006. Originally a series of lectures sponsored by the Frielich Foundation in 2005, these essays are well-crafted and draw from a broad range of sources. We are treated to Lawrence on racism and xenophobia, the Cronulla riots, the dehumanisation of asylum seekers, the hollowing out of native title, state governments obsession with being ‘tough on crime’, the follies of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, the inexorable erosion of our civil liberties, the attack on the rights of workers and the demonisation of welfare recipients and indigenous Australians.

Lawrence’s basic thesis is that governments are successful when they induce a fear in voters that is out of proportion to the magnitude of the peril in question, and then offer solutions that are geared towards re-election rather than actually confronting the threats. To take one example, the Howard government stoked a fear of asylum seekers in 2001 that was out of proportion to the number of boats arriving by suggesting that some might be terrorists and were the sort of people who threw their children overboard. The government then offered a solution that reassured people by claiming that borders would be protected and the government would remain in control of who would come into Australia and the terms on which they entered. Lawrence applies the same logic to her other topics, with varying degrees of success, insisting that fear-mongering is in ascendance in Australia.

Any contention that we are seeing an increase in ‘the politics of fear’ would depend on a measurement of the conditions that Lawrence’s thesis presupposes: the extent to which people have a natural receptiveness to the inducement of fear; the discrepancy between levels of fear and the objective magnitude of the threat, discounted by its likelihood; the extent to which people believe in the solutions offered to them; and the connection between belief in the solutions and votes actually cast. Of course, these variables are fiendishly hard to measure, not least because of the number of subjective and ideologically contingent elements involved.

Lawrence regards the invocation of fear by governments as necessarily corrupting. But is it? Fear is a tactic that can be used by governments for positive ends (something she acknowledges as an aside - 15). Think of government-sponsored advertising aimed at confronting people with the consequences of tobacco smoking, drug use and drink driving – we aren’t given sober statistics on mortality rates, but rather doctors removing gruesome tumors and drunk drivers paranoid that every car is a booze bus.

Fear is also a tactic that can be used by interest groups to get worthy issues noticed by governments. The dire predictions of global warming doomsayers are a clear example of fear-mongering that has an increasingly conclusive scientific foundation. The same cannot be said of that band of green fellow travelers who have succeeded in invoking in some countries a fear of genetically modified foods that is based less on solid scientific evidence than a romantic reverence for ‘nature’. The politics of fear is not monopolized by the forces of the right.

In fact, Lawrence seems to be less concerned with the politics of fear than with advocating the virtues of cool, rational debate about the best means to tackle social problems. Few could disagree that public policy is best served by ignoring hysteria and focusing on hard facts and data.  If there is one consistent theme throughout the book, it is that people are not very good at assessing the magnitude of broader social threats – when polled, we consistently perceive crime to be on the increase when the data shows otherwise; we overestimate the threat that terrorism statistically poses and we seem to regard people from other cultures with suspicion on very little foundation. Lawrence cites academic research on the perception of risk that suggests that irrational suspicion may even be an ingrained part of the human condition.

In the face of such a depressing conclusion, one solution might be to cede authority for the assessment of risks to experts. If David Indermaur, the UWA criminologist whom Lawrence cites, were in charge of criminal justice policy, perhaps the relevant indicators of criminal activity would improve. But experts disagree, even on fundamentals like what ‘indicators’ are the most relevant; for example, if arrest rates go up, is that a good or a bad thing? And crucially, how should governments respond when the evidence points to uncertain conclusions, but the consequences of making a wrong decision are catastrophic? One strategy is to adopt the ‘precautionary principle’, a modern day version of Pascal’s Wager (the consequences of not believing in God – eternal damnation – make regular church attendance seem a minor inconvenience, so one may as well, in the face of conflicting evidence, believe in God).

Cass Sunstein, an author Lawrence quotes in her discussion of the social psychology of fear, deals with the pathologies of policy driven by the precautionary principle in his new book (Sunstein, 2005). Sunstein explains that the animating idea behind the precautionary principle ‘is that regulators should take steps to protect against potential harms, even if causal chains are unclear and even if we do not know that those harms will come to fruition’ (Sunstein, 2005: 4, a principle he condemns both for lack of utility and ultimate incoherence. Depending on whether the problem is phrased in the positive or the negative, application of the precautionary principle can lead to either a crippling bias in favour of the status quo or an excessively hasty willingness to radical change, both in the name of  averting catastrophic threat.

If even experts are prone to overstating risks, where does that leave Lawrence’s plea for cool, rational debate about the problems we face? Sunstein’s solution lies in deliberative democracy, a concept built around the resolution of public policy conflicts through reasoned debate. According to this theory, the legitimacy of political structures is based on their deliberative procedures, there is a fundamental equality built on each citizen’s deliberative capacities, but above this there is a respect for value pluralism, there is a commitment to the giving of reasons during deliberation, and finally there is a belief in consensus, rather than majoritarian, decision-making.

There are those who dismiss the deliberative model as utopian, arguing that deliberation will always be a vehicle for rhetoric and self-interest, rather than a rational pursuit of the common good. Communitarians argue (most commonly in response to John Rawls’ theory of the original position) that it is impossible for deliberators to adopt a position that is not informed by their cultural worldview. In response to Sunstein, it might be argued that such worldviews (for example, egalitarianism, individualism, hierarchism, fatalism) permeate the mechanisms through which individuals assess risk. While egalitarians are prone to exaggerating environmental risks, hierarchists or conservatives are prone to exaggerating the risks of terrorism.

A key feature of deliberative democracy is that views are transformed through the process of discussion. The evolution of Lawrence’s views that this essay began by pointing to gives us hope that political views can be transformed even amongst our legislators. Of course, deliberative democracy poses a challenge to traditional conceptions of representative democracy. The constituents of Fremantle may well have voted for Lawrence in the 2001 election on the basis that her party and leader mirrored the Coalition’s stance on border protection. Her U-turn after the election (much like Judi Moylan’s after the 2004 election) might in some senses be seen as undemocratic. However Lawrence’s persistent articulation of the issues she is passionate about – reform of the ALP, refugees, indigenous affairs, the war on terror, the American alliance – of which this book is but one example, is arguably an illustration of her commitment to deliberative democracy. As for the deliberative standards of the place of which she is a member, well that is a different question entirely (see Uhr, 1998).

Given that the Commonwealth Parliament is not full of members of Lawrence’s caliber, the only response is to push for institutional reform to increase Parliament’s deliberative quotient. While Lawrence rightly despairs of public attitudes towards criminal justice, surely the success of the jury system, as perhaps our most pre-eminent deliberative institution, shows that ordinary people when put in situations of extraordinary power to decide someone’s fate, take their job very seriously and usually arrive at the ‘right’ answer.  Indeed, elsewhere Lawrence has spoken favorably of the possibility of using ‘citizen’s juries’ to augment policy-making on a broad range of matters.

Why can’t this model be extended to our legislature? A randomly selected ‘jury’ could hear submissions from experts in particular policy areas. Rules and procedures could be devised to limit the impact of the precautionary principle and other pathologies and fallacies. It may not be possible to eliminate the problem of competing worldviews because unlike an individual’s guilt or innocence; public policy will tend toward the inately contestable. But the random nature of the juries would ensure that hierarchists, egalitarians, individualists and fatalists would on average cancel each other out, and that the resulting policy would be a compromise between different views. Above all, the use of citizen juries might assist with the development of policy based on sound evidence.

Lawrence’s book portrays a sickness at the heart of contemporary Australian politics that is greater than just the product of ten years of conservative rule. Many of the big political issues of our time can be effectively examined through the prism of fear. We need a whole new volume, however, to outline how fear can be confronted with evidence, rationality and deliberation in a democratic setting.

  1. Sunstein, Cass R. (2005). Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Uhr, John (1998) Deliberative democracy in Australia : the changing place of parliament. Cambridge University Press.