Dr Samara McPhedran

When your election campaign fizzles, rub some gun paranoia on it

The ALP’s push-back against the Liberal Party’s gun discussion has little to do with the greater good, and everything to do with political point-scoring. 

 

 

Gun laws have been in the news lately, with revelations that the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia is having its say about the upcoming Victorian state election. Usually, headlines about guns mean one of two things: there has been a shooting incident, or it is a slow news week. But this time, something else going on. This is about major party political games. Struggling to gain traction against the Liberal party’s “tough on crime” platform, news about “the gun lobby” is exactly what the Labor Party has been yearning for.

The Liberals, long dominant in the race to the bottom on law and order, have been scoring easy political points painting Labor as weak on security and unable to tackle crime. Unsurprisingly, the ALP is frantically trying to beef up its credentials at state and federal levels. They know that law and order campaigns play a crucial role in signalling not just legal, but moral authority – a desperately sought after commodity in today’s climate of distrust for major parties.

 

 

Yet Labor’s efforts are frequently hamstrung not only by the preference-wielding Greens, but by their own vociferous and powerful left faction. When Labor leaders talk tough, they face in-house ideological fury. Throw in some nods to evidence-based policy, civil liberties and the constraint of police powers, and the result is often ungainly backpedalling or embarrassing reversal. This fuels further allegations of weakness. To counter the Liberals and create a perception of credibility on law and order, the ALP needs an issue where it can look tough but avoid messy battles within its ranks.

Enter gun control: the one issue where values the “left” routinely bring to the law and order debate get tossed aside and replaced by mouth-foaming fervour. Suddenly, sweeping prohibitions, more police powers and more government intrusion into people’s lives become eminently desirable. By creating a sense of hysteria around guns, the ALP can posture as tough on crime while safe in the knowledge that – for once – they are shielded from criticism from their own side.

 

The mythology manufactured around our gun laws means any re-appraisal is likened to inviting the deaths of children. This encourages frenzied public shaming of anybody who disputes the ALP’s pose – or calls it out for the subterfuge it is.

 

The ALP’s moral panic about guns has nothing to do with guns, and everything to do with crushing the Liberals. History tells us that when gun laws are tightened a swathe of voters abandon the party they blame for that. Failing to provide opposition also gets punished. Knowing this, Labor has started using gun laws as a sneaky wedge issue.

The aim is to force the Liberals into a corner where their only choices are to oppose Labor, agree with Labor, or get into “even tougher” one-upmanship. In the first scenario, the Liberals can be portrayed as immorally pandering to the gun lobby. In the other scenarios, the Liberals lose votes to “gun-friendly” minor parties. Although the ALP will also lose votes, they are gambling that the Liberals will sustain more damage.

This attack plan got its first serious electoral run in Queensland. The Liberal National Party pledged to oppose reclassification of the now-infamous Adler shotgun, and the Labor government went into full fear-mongering mode. Amid carefully timed claims about putting guns on the streets and placing communities at risk, the LNP got spooked, changed their tune just before the 2017 election, and were thumped.

The same tactic was rolled out in the recent Tasmanian election, but unlike their Queensland counterparts, the Tasmanian Liberals did not follow the script. After proposing changes to a handful of gun laws, they refused to back down despite a Labor/Greens-driven media blitz about the evil gun lobby dictating policy. Far from being weakened, they won another term in power.

 

Sadly, we are only too willing to turn a selectively blind eye to such posturing when it involves fright and feel-good sentiments, or plays to our own prejudices.

 

Undeterred by the initial failure of “Operation Gun Wedge”, Labor still managed to do them slowly. The Tasmanian Liberals have now penitently vowed to observe the legacy of John Howard, as preached by John Howard himself. The ALP is playing smart: they know that by attacking the Liberals on gun issues they will receive the deified elder’s zealous support against his own party, to erode the Liberals over time.

These machinations have been conveniently ignored by the same media who are usually quickest to call out such politicking. Well aware that gun control is a fashionable cause among virtue-signalling sectors of the media, by choosing this issue as a battleground the ALP has not only shielded itself from scrutiny but has co-opted press sympathisers to act as a cheer squad.

Meanwhile, the mythology that has been carefully manufactured around our gun laws means any re-appraisal of those is likened to inviting the deaths of children. This encourages frenzied public shaming of anybody who disputes the ALP’s pose – or calls it out for the subterfuge it is.

At a time when politicians bear a striking resemblance to a gaggle of high school girls fighting over a boy, it is sadly unsurprising that creating fear purely to outwit an opponent is being passed off as a serious contest of ideas. Although the political rat cunning is impressive, it reveals a dismal state of affairs where gaining advantage through calculated manipulation of public emotion takes precedence over everything else.

If we want good quality public policy, we need better than this. Sadly, we are only too willing to turn a selectively blind eye to such posturing when it involves fright and feel-good sentiments, or plays to our own prejudices. Until we are prepared to call this out – irrespective of how we may feel about the subject matter – our complaints of wanting better from politicians when it comes to issues we truly care about are nothing more than self-righteous hypocrisy.

 

Dr Samara McPhedran

Dr Samara McPhedran holds a PhD in Psychology and has published extensive research examining Australian and international firearm policy and gun violence. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that might benefit from this article. Dr McPhedran has been appointed to a number of firearms advisory panels and committees, most recently as a member of the Queensland Ministerial Advisory Panel on Firearms, and as a previous member of the Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council. She does not receive any financial remuneration or other rewards for these activities. She has held past memberships with/volunteered for a range of not-for-profit firearm-related organisations and women's advocacy groups. She is not a member of any political party. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

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