The G'days are over as Australians mount Bali terror hunt

The Scotsman 01/06/03

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IT IS promoted as an offensive against an invisible enemy responsible for claiming the lives of nearly 90 Australians on the holiday island of Bali.

But for many the policy evokes a chapter of the country’s history they would wish to forget - the McCarthy-inspired witch-hunts of the 1950s, aimed at rooting out communist agitators.

Last week Australians awoke from their post-Christmas slumber to find themselves subjected to a frenzied anti-terrorist propaganda campaign.

The launch coincided with the jailing of the first person in Australia under tough new anti-terrorism laws: Thomas James Lilico, a British holidaymaker who threatened to hijack a passenger jet.

With memories of last year’s horrific Bali bomb blast fresh in their minds and the threat of a war with Iraq looming, prime minister John Howard has turned up the pressure on his critics by launching a patriotic call to arms in the form of an advertising campaign urging Australians to report suspicious behaviour by their neighbours and fellow citizens.

"We are a fun-loving, free people and the government has no desire and no intention of altering that," he said. "But the unpalatable fact is that we do live in a different world and we have to take appropriate steps."

Having been stymied in his attempts to widen the powers of Australia’s major intelligence organisation, the prime minister has instead appealed directly to the Australian people to take up the fight against global terrorism.

Last week Howard launched a A$15m (£5.3m) public awareness campaign, urging Australians to report any suspicious goings-on in their neighbourhoods, shopping centres or places of work.

The ‘Let’s look out for Australia’ adverts feature security force personnel checking for car bombs and examining airline baggage, as well as people attending a barbecue and playing cricket. Viewers are told to contact a 24-hour security hotline if they see anything suspicious.

Although the glossy television, radio and print commercials target a phantom enemy, critics claim they elicit alarming memories of the anti-communist purges of the 1950s.

Under the sway of American McCarthyism, Robert Menzies, the then Australian prime minister, clamped down on trade unionists and the Left, but failed in his attempt to outlaw the Communist party.

Unlike Menzies, Howard, does not face a coalition of forces implacably opposed to him. On the contrary, opinion polls suggest that at least 80% of Australians support his hardline response to terrorism, asylum-seekers and other threats to national security.

However, some critics have suggested that Howard is using the current fear of terrorism to mask a more personal and destructive political agenda.

Joseph Wakim, founder of the Australian Arabic Council, said: "The reputation of Australia as a friendly nation, with a healthy distance from the US, Britain and Asia, has been irreversibly eroded over the last 12 months.

"When our government aligns Australia with the US and its history of foreign interference, we implicate ourselves in an enemy camp."

David Day, lecturer in history at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, said the new campaign was in the tradition of Australian wartime propaganda which vilified the Japanese, although now the enemy is unspecified.

For a prime minister high in the opinion polls and presiding over a robust economy, the release of the anti-terrorism campaign could not have been timed with greater precision.

Last week a fresh wave of violence erupted inside the country’s high-security refugee camps, leaving the government with an A$9m damage bill but hardening public opinion against the asylum-seekers - most of whom are from Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. However, the first man to face charges in connection with the violence is a Scot, Darren McCreadie, believed to be from Edinburgh, who was facing deportation.

Three days ago, British tourist Thomas Lilico, 22, of Darlington, County Durham, was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for threatening to hijack a Qantas plane at Cairns Airport.

Although Lilico had been drinking heavily before the incident and had no recollection of making such a threat and no weapon, Australian authorities said they had no alternative but to charge the tourist. The offence carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.

Australia was second only to the United States in introducing a raft of counter-terrorism legislation in the wake of September 11, and has offered President George Bush unqualified support for any future war against Iraq.

At a time when Australians traditionally turn their backs on work and devote themselves to cricket, the beach and barbecues, the nation is being forced to confront an unpalatable truth: that it is now a prime target for international terrorism.

But not everyone accepts the government line that Australia is an innocent party. Indeed, Richard Butler, the former head of the UN weapons inspectorate, maintains the current government has followed America’s national security agenda at the expense of its own regional interests.

"Howard’s stance has increased Australia’s identification with the US to an unprecedented level," he said, "at a time when grave doubt is spreading around the world about the policies of the Bush administration and at a deeply serious cost to Australia’s relations with the area of primary security to Australia: Asia."

Unlike the US or Britain, Australia finds itself in a geographical predicament: an affluent, democratic Western-leaning country lodged uncomfortably close to South-east Asia.

Australia’s uncharacteristic jumpiness has much to do with the fact that its nearest neighbour, Indonesia, is home to 228 million Muslims.

Few in Australia question the proposition that last October’s bombing in Bali - ironically a Hindu enclave in the world’s largest Muslim nation - was a direct attack on Australia and its relaxed social mores.

A recent newspaper poll found that a quarter of the Australian population now suffers from a "general paranoia" and fear of a terrorist attack. Thousands of people deserted this week’s New Year celebrations at Sydney Harbour after rumours of a terrorist attack.

Rather than increasing people’s sense of security, the public awareness campaign seems to be having the opposite effect.

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