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Deconstructing a dog whistle

Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.

Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity, painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.

If national security is so important that it has prompted an address to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.

When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them, generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us that he is keeping us safe.

An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers, however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system. There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference into people’s everyday lives.

A Message from the PM

Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”. It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker, died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.

Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure” as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.

We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.

“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by Abbott.

The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.

Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]

There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding “extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.

Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.

Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make Australians still safer?

The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing their Centrelink entitlements?

It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013. Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the public.

The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead, they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police swooped.

How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the last six months, and on Australian soil?

The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message, the inference is clear: that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.

The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more offensive.

Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”

Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from “taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose, we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.

Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”. There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of muslims everywhere.

Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner, lurking under every bed.

By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be respected.

Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies. Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.

“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.


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  1. Peter f

    One good thing reported here is that the Muslim community reported the rapid radicalisation of these two young men out of concern that they might act. This is what we need to know: there are good people in the Muslim community who are prepared to stand up for this country.

  2. Graham Houghton

    You must have noticed that it’s not ‘keep us safe’, or ‘keep Australians safe’, but it’s ‘keep you safe’. The implication is, of course, that ‘you, the public, are weak and helpless without us. We are your elders and betters who have a fount of wisdom and experience to draw upon. Come to us and we will protect you.’ It is fear-mongering of the lowest sort and it will not wash with us, particularly those of us who have lived through real and sustained terror campaigns elsewhere. This man you describe in your piece as possessing, ‘…indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation’ is who, exactly? Oh, yes, of course, a ‘terrorist’.

  3. Kaye Lee

    Experts in “radicalisation” – the process by which alienated individuals adopt increasingly extreme ideas – suggest that tough, us-versus-them talk may have the undesired effect of encouraging radicalisation, by confirming the world-view propagated by advocates.

    A more effective strategy, experts say, combines social inclusion and explicit de-radicalisation efforts.

    But Tony doesn’t understand this approach. He isn’t interested in causes or prevention. As he so revealingly explained to us, “Sometimes, to be best and fairest, you have to throw the first punch.” That’s the Tony way.

  4. Graham Houghton

    Have you also noticed that his utterances and vocabulary are veering more and more to the brutality of boxing and other physical assault ‘sports’. As I’ve said before today, punch-drunk and lashing out wildly at anything that moves. And all this from someone who was reportedly a pretty mediocre pugilist anyway.

  5. Jeanette

    In the 1950’s correct me if the time wrong when Communists were everywhere…!! the Labor Party all Communists and the Liberal mantra was “Reds under the bed”. I do wish journos on mass would keep repeating this old mantra to Abbott just to show what a fool he is

  6. Olivia Manor

    Waiting for Abbott to start wearing leather trench coats and army boots!

  7. David

    Also the psychotic nutter is using the terrorist threat as a straight up political tool while trying to show he is the protector of the nation. He fools only the red neck dedicated Lib supporters. They would believe he is the reincarnated Menzies if Abbott so wished.

  8. corvus boreus

    Graham H,
    The language of unsporting ploys, religious fanaticism and organised murder (war) has long been an Abbott stock in trade.
    He openly boasts of cheating, proudly recalling exploits of throwing sly-punches in rugby scrums and sledging in cricket games.
    He literally demonises political opponents (negotiating with the Greens = “deals with the devil”).
    He chose to title his political memoirs “Battlelines”, which means lines of people committed to slaughtering other people, often regardless of collatoral consequences. The idea of civil political debate to negotiate compromise in representational governance is referred to as “verbal combat”.
    By his own recount, backed up by the testimony of others, when he actually took to the ring, he had no competent guard, and relied on rash aggression.
    In all cases, the concepts of sporting conduct and the noble art of self defense seem to have eluded Tony’s mentality, and what we see instead is feral aggression backed by illegitimate measures.
    A sledging, lying, cheat by his own testimony.

  9. John O

    What is this fool trying to do to this country? His personal obsession with remaining in power is becoming increasingly erratic and potentially dangerous. I am doubting whether there is a limit to how low he can go. One can’t but feel a little helpless when we have a mentally unstable despot leading a compliant government and an the opposition that is either silent or complicit in the erosion of our way of life.

  10. Stephen Kemke

    Copybook Goebbels …

  11. Margaret McMillan

    That’s an interesting point Graham H: Abbott’s use of language. In this case it’s “keep you safe” but have you ever noticed how much he refers to himself when he is making any kind of statement? It’s all about the ‘I’ of Abbott. Never ‘we’ or ‘us’. He truly does see himself as separate from the Australian people, in his rightful place according to him. I noticed it when he seemed rather surprised to be asked what he thought Australians thought about the knighting of Phillip. He said it was nothing to do with anyone else; he was entitled to do it, so he did it.

  12. corvus boreus

    Margaret McMillan,
    I have noticed that for Mr Abbott, the use of “we” tends to be restricted to extending blame to the collective when called to account for his own failings and transgressions.
    Conversely, the first person “I” is usually only brought out for those rare occasions where supposed accomplishments are cited.
    ‘We may have made some mistakes in the past, but you, the people have spoken and I have listened’.
    Collectivising blame and individualising credit; another Abbott staple.

  13. diannaart

    he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”

    This quote just gives me chills – since claiming he would be a more consultative PM – seems to me Abbott has lurched even further towards authoritarianism.

    For how much longer? Do we just sit and watch? Can we trust the Liberal party to take action if Abbott goes even further off the rails?

  14. Terry2

    I would feel a lot more confident of this man’s motivations if he or his ministers would come out a say that they are as concerned about contaminated foodstuffs (berries in this case) coming into Australia and being marketed here with Hep A contamination.

    I would feel a lot more comfortable if they would come out and say that they were doing something about food imports AND clear and concise country of origin labelling.

    This rubbish about being the food bowl of Asia is just misleading nonsense, we are killing our own clean and green producers by allowing the wholesale import of inferior products.

    I’m not holding my breath, Abbott is not even interested in this as it may upset the big end of town to do anything.

  15. xiaoecho

    How depressing. It was ever so but to see Abbott baldly conflate his 2 pet hates – refugees and non workers as one and the same thing (a danger to peace loving Aussies) is truly dismal. All the Liberals have is fear. They have destroyed the idea of a fair minded egalitarian Australia for good. Yesterday it came out that the 6 month wait for Newstart was Credlins idea. It seems we have a Credlin/Abbott dictatorship – anyone who dares speak up is ….attacked just as Triggs was. Too depressed to write.

    I want my country back

  16. David

    Trust a Tory?, I wouldn’t trust that lot to spell trust correctly, let alone know what it means and act, if they see Abbott for what he is.

  17. Francesco

    While Tony dog whistles about ‘death cults’, I don’t see the MSM actually talking about what a cult is and in particular what a death cult is. So an over-simple explanation for those who think a death cult equates to a non-Christian belief system.
    A cult is a religious or social group often with (but not always) socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. Cults have a system of veneration and devotion (religious) directed toward a particular figure, or figures, or object (look at the Catholic Church for example). Simply, Christians (all denominations and sects) are part of a cult belief system. The Christian religions (cults) are based on death by virtue of the veneration offered to Jesus, the various saints, and of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thus Christianity is simply a death cult. So which death cult are we referring to? Oh! Should I also point out that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all come (essentially) from the same root belief system!!

  18. corvus boreus

    John Stewart, eat your heart out!
    Such an analytical and erudite evisceration of a broad (foreign) political genera-type.

    Ps, the “,” after “?” is redundant punctuation.

  19. ianmac

    Relevant and cogent (x2) comments, Terry2 ! So many more real concerns in this country ATM. Truly we are in the land of ‘oz’… If only Australia had a brain..

  20. corvus boreus

    The word I crave is “re-regulation”.
    Consumer protections.
    Workplace safety.
    Social protections against reckless financial speculation and predation.
    Including the question; ‘should we allow unlabelled importation from countries with lax laws including allowing growing their foodstuffs in ‘nightsoil’.

  21. paul walter

    It’s not so much the lies, but the unrelenting persisting with them from the Monk.

    Corvus, Ian..its not much the native lack of brains, as the duplicity and slyness of people manipulating the wording and intent of the law.

    THAT’s what Nannas’s Dangleberries shows up.

  22. Phi

    Abbott is in fact attempting to ‘radicalise’ the Australian population to his world view – and his is very much a radical view.

    I’m not one of Abbott’s ‘us’ and he does not speak to me, nor for me nor in fact for anyone I know.

    I am an Australian citizen, a husband, father and grandfather, and I believe in the worth of Australia as a good global citizen. However I will not accept Abbott as a fellow citizen. I see him as a charlatan, a likely UK citizen committed purely to the attainment and manipulation of political power, even where that wielding of power is antithetical to the good of all Australians.

    Go away Tony Abbott, I don’t want you and I don’t need you – just leave my shores and find somewhere else to exist. Australia wants to get back to the business of contributing to the making of a just and a decent world, and you, Tony Abbott are the ultimate hindrance to progress.

  23. David

    corveus get puncugated 🙂

  24. CMMC

    Man Haron Monis, from what I have read and heard, was a bi-polar religious fruitcake. He preached Sunni along with Shi’ite doctrine, and even threw in some Christianity and Zoroastrianism.

    He was accepted as a refugee on the grounds of religious persecution, but he was just crazy and Tehran was glad to see the end of him.

    The Martin Place siege was not terrorism, but it shows we need more Gun Control.

  25. Lee

    It was the Liberals’ poor immigration policies that allowed the Abbott family into Australia.

  26. Rosemary Jacob

    An excellent article and Phi, I endorse your sentiments.
    Abbott only says we when, for example, he approaches Indonesia to stop the execution of two Australians. He surely knew that he is scorned by the Indonesian President so he tried to imply that we were behind him.
    I have never liked Abbott and I like him even less now and I dislike the damage he and Hockey and Brandis are doing to what has been the Lucky Country. It does not feel lucky at least at the moment!

  27. Rais

    Phi, like you I am an Australian citizen, a husband, father and grandfather. I’m also a Muslim. Like most Aussie Muslims I’m not comfortable with all the dog whistling this man indulges in to distract people’s attention when he’s in trouble. It shouldn’t happen that an Aussie feels relief when he sets foot in a neighbouring foreign country where his religion is not treated as a threat by the the elected authorities but that’s what is happening.

  28. eli nes

    a sad confused man whose confusion is easily understood by the voters.

  29. gangey1959

    Another well written article.
    Re ” Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.” We have to ask ourselves, “What are he and his mates going to do, turn themselves in?” I think not, your Honour.
    Mind you. Google poses an interesting conundrum.
    Click on “images” on the main Google page, and type British hate preachers. Then substitute ‘Australian’ for ‘British’.
    The defense rests

  30. Haildebus

    What I’d like to know is, how did Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi who, were not on the radar, suddenly get on it and just in a nick of time?

  31. Lee

    I read somewhere that they recently succumbed to radicalisation and were reported to authorities by the Muslim community.

  32. corvus boreus

    Well done, David, sterling work. Warrants a slow clap.
    !st you post a response in which the only correct spelling was your own name and the word “get”, then 28 hours later you manage to rustle up a photo of a man in a suit yawning at a desk(and a single mis-spelled word).
    To quote another, “_____ time you got to the topic at hand, _____. You have had your say on contributors, now extracting of digit required. Carry on.”
    Or, if you prefer, “__ you must be hell to live with”.

  33. Kaye Lee


    The thing that particularly disturbs me is our failure to protect our children. It is the Muslim community who has suffered the most, not only overseas from IS, but also here where some of our children are being groomed online by extremists.

    Instead of putting in place strategies to protect our kids, we are punishing them and their families. We must all work together to help our young ones who often struggle with feelings of exclusion and alienation. Adolescence is a vulnerable time and we are failing these kids if they think killing people is preferable to the life they are leading here.

  34. Bob Collier

    “Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.” This is not necessarily correct. The NSW Police opposed bail in this case but, so I heard, a written objection was left on a desk and not delivered. Consequently, a review of the decision wasn’t made when it would otherwise have come under consideration and may have been changed. A member of the NSW police force said to me on the day of the siege, “Somebody made a mistake.” There seemed to be a popular perception that Monis should not have been out on bail.

  35. OzFenric

    Bob, you may well be correct. According to current legislation, Monis would not have been out on bail. And evidently someone did make a mistake. My point is that denying him bail has absolutely nothing to do with preventing terrorist activities. Bail, and Centrelink, are inherently separate to national security issues. Abbott might as well point to all our many prisons and say that he’s prevented a few thousand suicide bombers.

  36. Bob Collier

    Yes, I see your point. I agree on that.

  37. Pingback: Racist booing of Adam Goodes: this is Abbott’s Australia | Southerly Currents

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