The Politics of Fear

I have an article on the ABC Drum website today about the politics of fear.
Power-seeking politicians walking the low road on fear
ABC The Drum Opinion, 19 March 2012

For centuries, power-seeking politicians have recognised that scaring the public is an effective tactic to win support.

Today, with ready access to a media that's hungry for shocking stories, any parliamentarian who wants to whip up fear will usually find a ready audience.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of fear of crime. Most Australians – particularly those whose major source of information is talkback radio – believe that crime is high and rising. And yet as a report earlier this month from the Australian Institute of Criminology showed, most categories of crime in Australia have been falling over time.

Alas, some members of the Federal Opposition this week decided that they would take the low road, and exploit community fear of crime for partisan ends.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott spoke of a 'reign of terror on the streets of Sydney'. For anyone who missed the first dog-whistle, Scott Morrison added, 'If you can't stop the boats, you can't stop the guns'. Neither admitted that officers from customs and police – working with their European counterparts – had successfully shut down an attempt to smuggle guns into the country. Spreading misinformation on any issue is damaging, but it's particularly harmful in the case of crime.

Indeed, it was the great legal scholar Jeremy Bentham who first suggested that crime might have an impact on non-victims. A violent crime, Bentham suggested, did a 'primary mischief' to its victim. But it also caused a 'secondary mischief'. As reports circulated, people would go out of their way to avoid the spot where it happened. Some might spend money to protect themselves. Others could be too scared to leave their homes at all. Bentham's work showed that the ripples of crime spread out well beyond the event itself.

A few years ago, as an economics professor at the Australian National University, I carried out a study with UK economist Francesca Cornaglia in which we aimed to test Bentham's theory in Australia. Matching up surveys of mental wellbeing with data on police crime reports, we found that an increase in crime was associated with lower levels of mental wellbeing for people who were not a victim of any crime. When crime surged, people in the neighbourhood who hadn't been victims tended to experience more emotional problems, nervousness and depression.

Moreover, we found that media reports of crime act as a 'multiplier' – causing crime to have an even larger negative impact on mental wellbeing. This suggests that misleading media reports – including those fuelled by self-serving politicians – could lower people's mental wellbeing.

On crime, perhaps more than any other issue, there is a tendency for increases to be reported more than decreases. Good education results make a perfectly decent newspaper story, but no TV news reporter ever started off the evening bulletin with saying 'There weren't any murders today'. Yet because of the impact that crime reports have on mental wellbeing, accurate crime reporting matters.

That puts the onus on to politicians to act in the national interest, and speak responsibly about crime rates. Every time a politician gets a sound-grab on the evening news that misleads people into thinking that crime is rampant, thousands of Australians reassess their evening plans.

As we know, political fear campaigns run by people like Pauline Hanson and Jean-Marie Le Pen weren't brilliant tactical manoeuvres – they just reflected a willingness to walk the low road. Frightening the public isn't difficult – it's just an approach that most politicians choose not to adopt.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser and you can find his website here.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.