Sunday 8 July 2018

The Abbott Government response to national security: proportionate or a moral panic?


The Abbott Government response to national security: proportionate or a moral panic?


Box, M. (2018). The Abbott Government response to national security: proportionate or a moral panic? Paper presented at the 2018 Federation University HDR Conference Ballarat. Retrieved from


It is a long tradition of the Hobbesian realist view of politics that the most important duty of a government is the ‘protection of their citizens’. Since 2001 the dominant mantra in Australian federal politics has been protection of the community from ‘illegal boat arrivals’ and terrorists. However, is the response proportionate and necessary to the risk posed or is it a moral panic?
Based upon the theory of moral panics and the nationalism perspectives of imagined communities and ethnic moralizers, this presentation explores the manner in which the Abbott Government (2013-2015) portrayed these issues. The words of the prime minister through transcripts and media releases published on his official web page at the time are analysed utilizing a discourse analysis model adapted from James Gee’s ‘Discourse analysis toolkit.’  It is concluded that although these issues were of significant national security concern the way they were handled constituted a moral panic.
 The importance of this research rests in the almost universal agreement of terrorism scholars that one of the aims of terrorism is to cause a government to over react and hence undermine its legitimacy. Descending into a moral panic based policy response would achieve such an aim resulting in ‘policy blowback’ consequently weakening rather than strengthening national security.




Theoretical Perspectives: 

1.       Performed by an irregular non-state actor wishing to achieve a political/politico-religious aim.

2.       Targets non-combatants to cause fear so as to force them to undertake or refrain from undertaking a political action.

3.       Aims to produce an overreaction by government so as to undermine its legitimacy.


1.       Benedict Anderson (1983) ‘Imagined communities’
The nation “is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (p 7).

2.       Paul Brass (1976) ‘Ethnic Mobilisers’
“Ethnic transformation begins only when elites consciously choose to select ethnic symbols as a basis for mobilization of support in competition with other elites...” (p 239).


Moral panics

1.       Phenomena brought about by heightened public fear of a perceived threat

2.       The demonised group is seen as the cause of the threat to social norms

3.       Government will react in a manner disproportionate to the threat




Abbott, T. (Cartographer). (2014a). Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit

Abbott, T. (Cartographer). (2014b). G20 volunteer launch

Abbott, T. (Cartographer). (2014c). Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda

Abbott, T. (Cartographer). (2014d). Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Rutte, Parliament House

Abbott, T. (Cartographer). (2014e). Remarks at Federal Executive Meeting, Menzies House

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. . London: Verso.

Brass, P. (1976). Ethnicity and Nationality Formation. Ethnicity, 3, 225-241.

Gee, J. P. (2011). How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit. New York: Routledge.
Theoretical Perspectives

Alexander, D., & Klein, S. (2003). Bio-chemical Terrorism: Too Awful to Contemplate, Too serious to Ignore. British Journal of Psychiatry, 183, 491-497.

Cary, S. (2009). The Tipping Point: Biological Terrorism. Journal of Strategic Security, 2(3), 13-24.

Gearson, J. (2002). The Nature of Modern Terrorism. In L. Freedman (Ed.), Superterrorism: Policy Responses. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Manningham-Buller, E. (2003). Countering Terrorism: An international blueprint. Paper presented at the The Royal United Institute Conference: The Oversight of Intelligence and Security.

Pinto, S., & Wardlaw, G. (1989). Political Violence. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Richardson, L. (2006). What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat. London: John Murrary (Publishers).

Stern, J., & Berger, J. M. (2016). ISIS: The State of Terror. London: William Collins.

Tucker, J. (1999). Historical Trends Related to Bioterrorism: An Emerical Analysis. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5(4), 498-504.

Weimann, G. (2006). New Terrorism, new Media Terror on the Internet: The New Arena The New Challenges. Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press.

White, J. (2009). Terrorism and Homeland Security (6th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Wilkinson, P. (2011). Terrorism versus Democracy: The liberal state response (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Williams, C. (2004). Terrorism Explained: The facts about terrorism and terrorist groups. Sydney: New Holand.



Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. . London: Verso.

Brass, P. (1976). Ethnicity and Nationality Formation. Ethnicity, 3, 225-241.

Calhoun, C. (2017, 9 May 2017). Nation and Imagination How Benedict Anderson Revolutionized Political Theory. ABC Region and Ethics. Retrieved from

Connor, W. (1990). When is a nation? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 13(1), 92-103.

Hechter, M. (1977). Towards a Theory of  Ethnic Change. Politics and Society, Fall, 21-45.

McKay, J. (1982). An exploratory synthesis of primordial and mobilizationist approaches to ethnic phenomena. Ethnic and Radical Studies, 5(4), 395-420.

Silva, M. d. (1975). Modernization and Ethnic Conflict: The case of the Basques. Comparative Politics, 7(2), 227-251.

Smith, A. (1984). Ethnic Persistence and National Transformation. The British Journal of Sociology, 35(3), 452-461.

Smith, A. D. (1978). The Diffusion of Nationalism: Some historical and sociological perspectives. The British Journal of Sociology, 29(2), 234-248.


Moral Panics

Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Foreword: Moral Panics--36 Years On. British Journal of Criminology, 49(1), 1-3.

Burke, L. (2010). One punch can start a morial panic: an analysis of news items about fatal assaults in Queesland between 23 September 2006 and 28 February 2009. QUTLJJ, 10(1), 87-105.

Critcher, C. (2009). Widening The Focus: Moral Panics as Moral Regulation. British Journal of Criminology, 49(1), 17-34.

Dagistanli, S., & Milivojevic, S. (2013). Appropriating the rights of women: Moral panics, victims and exclusionary agendas in domestic and cross-borders sex crimes. Women's Studies International Forum, 40, 230-242.

David, M., Rohloff, A., Petley, J., & Hughes, J. (2011). The idea of moral panic: ten dimensions of dispute. Crime Media Culture, 7(3), 215-228.

Howarth, A. (2013). A ‘superstorm’: when moral panic and new risk discourses converge in the media. Health, Risk & Society, 15(8), 681-698.

Jenkins, P. (2009). Failure To Launch: Why Do Some Social Issues Fail to Detonate Moral Panics? British Journal of Criminology, 49(1), 35-47.

Katz, K. (2011). The Enemy Within: The Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Moral Panic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 36(3), 231-249.

Morgan, G., Dagistanli, S., & Martin, G. (2010). Global Fears, Local Anxiety: Policing, Counterterrorism and Moral Panic Over ‘Bikie Gang Wars’ in New South Wales. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 580–599.

Morton, T., & Aroney, E. (2015). Journalism, Moral Panic and the Public Interest. Journalism Practice, 10(1), 18-34.

Pearce, J. M., & Charman, E. (2011). A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic. Crime, Media, Culture, 7(3), 293-311.

Rohloff, A. (2011). Extending the Concept of Moral Panic: Elias, Climate Change and Civilization. Sociology, 45(4), 634-649.

Rohloff, A., & Wright, S. (2010). Moral Panic and Social Theory. Current Sociology, 58(3), 403-419.

Roland, D. (2013). The Response of Mainline Protestant Clergy Members to the Moral Panic Regarding Harry Potter. Journal of Religious & Theological Information, 12(3-4), 90-113.

Schissel, B. (1997). Youth crime, moral panics and the news: The conspiracy against the marginalized in Canada. Social Justice, 24(2), 165-184.

Soothill, K. (1998). Crime and the Media: A Vicious Circle? AQ: Australian Quarterly, 70(2), 24-29.

Young, J. (2009). Moral Panic: Its Origins in Resistance, Resentment and the Translation of Fantasy into Reality. British Journal of Criminology, 49(1), 4-16.