Comment: After the Lindt cafe siege, politics has its place - so long as it's responsible

A second floral memorial outside the fenced off Lindt Chocolate cafe in Martin Place in Sydney, Wednesday, December 17, 2014. (AAP)

The nation is mourning as one of Australia's most iconic meeting places has becomes flooded with floral tributes. Here, politics needs to tread carefully.

When such events as the Sydney Siege occur, it is tempting to suggest it highlights how much of what is political discourse - and what political disciourse is mired in the deeply trivial.

Certainly, when lives are in danger - whether through the actions of a madman or through natural disasters - there is a general sense that we should leave the politics out of it.

But politics is never left out of anything. To a large extent, neither should it be. The response to the Sydney siege has been highly political.

The comments from those on the reactionary far right, who almost find it difficult to suppress their glee that a Muslim committed an act of terrorism, can be ignored.

Appealing to the racists in the community, which make up a significant segment of their audience, mean that most of this commentary can be dismissed as the excited ramblings of those who think multiculturalism is wonderful, so long as everyone behave like they think white people think they should act.

Similarly while the #illridewithyou campaign was nice for creating positive feelings, one shouldn’t get too overwrought either in praising or attacking it.

LNP MP George Christensen, lacking any actual role to play in the situation, decided the issue required him to pretend to be a shock jock. Christensen took to Twitter to disparage the campaign as “hateywhitey”. He and numerous conservative commentators also suggested that the campaign took the focus away from the victims of the siege.

Such a view is so idiotic that they really need to be reminded that just because they are so dumb they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.

As Osman Faruqi noted, while an online hashtag is nice for a day, it isn’t worth much if that’s where it stays. It is also worth remembering that there are many people in our society who do fear riding on public transport, not the least of whom are women - regardless of their religion.

This is where politics becomes a very important part of the story, rather than something which should be avoided.

What will be the reaction of our political class to these events?

A review into the siege is sensible and merited. Clearly, there appears to be some pretty large gaps in the security net if it allowed Man Haron Monis – a person whom was not exactly a shadowy unknown figure – to fall off the ASIO watch list. But care needs to be taken that the review is conducted independently from the security agencies and that its focus remains on security. It shouldn't become a hobby horse for confirming prejudices.

This week, security agencies appeared before a parliamentary committee to argue for even greater powers, including forcing ISPs to retain all our metadata for 2 years. Questions need to be asked about how this would do anything to stop events like the siege, and also whether our agencies have the competency to use and protect such information.

That the AFP this week incorrectly advised the Prime Minister that Monis held a gun licence does little to provide people with any faith that our agencies either need the new powers or that they would be able to use them appropriately. Perhaps first they should sort out the systems and powers they already have before coming to demand more – especially ones that will have large consequences on our privacy.

The concern is that the review will be used to justify other sorts of policy. While the terms of Monis’ residency and refugee status, as well as his bail status, deserves review there seems little relevancy to whether or not he was on welfare. Yet Tony Abbott, while announcing the review specifically suggested, “We do need to know how he could have been on welfare for so many years”.

Why do we? What is the relevance of his being on welfare to his actions in murdering two innocent people?

At best, its inclusion in the terms of reference is in order to be as thorough as possible with respect to his interaction with government; at worst it is a nod to those in the government, media and community who think refugees only come to Australia to be on welfare.

Abbott doesn’t need to start tweeting a hashtag, and his refusal to suggest Islam was to blame for Manis’ actions is both correct and commendable but he does need to watch his words. Some of his advisors may be pressuring him to make the issue into one which divides the majority of the community against the other. He should resist.

Then there was Senator David Leyonhjelm, who suggested the siege proves that Australia needs looser gun laws. Regurgitating the sentiments advocated by pro-gun nuts in the USA - that the only thing that can stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun - Senator Leyonhjelm suggested the gun laws brought in by the Howard government in response to the Port Arthur massacre had turned “an entire population into a nation of victims.”

Politicians on both sides quickly rebuked him, but it highlights the importance of political reactions to events. Australian politicians reacted to Port Arthur with maturity and also with laws that manifestly made Australia safer. How will they react to the Sydney siege?

Tragedies often make politics seem trivial, but what politicians do is never trivial when the words they say and the laws they make affect us all.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch