It is like something from a forgotten political sketch show, a direct correlation between the number of flags behind the prime minister (or maybe president) and national security threat level. But no, this is Australia now. The prime minister stood in front of ten flags at a recent press conference.
The Australian news reported recently that according to parliamentary records Australia has spent in excess of A$500,000 ($372,000) on flags in the second half of last year. Liberal Member of Parliament John Alexander won the race, spending A$17,949, while the colorful National Bob Katter came in second, with a A$13,320 spend. Most of these flags are given away to schools and Returned Servicemen’s League clubs (RSLs). While the upswing may, say some politicians, have come during the ANZAC centenary year, what is also notable is how many more flags one sees at prime ministerial press conferences.
But what has caught the public’s attention is not what has been spent but the steady increase in their use. In late June when Tony Abbott delivered the details of his proposed citizenship laws he was backed by ten flags, a record and up from the previous eight. As the Sydney Morning Herald has observed, commentators now see flags as a reliable indicator of the government’s assessment of the terror level threat. Or, at least, what it wants the public to think is the threat. (For a less favorable opinion of the flag-tastic spectacle, look here.)
It’s an increase and one that has come after a noisy year of terror threats in Australia, from the Martin Place siege to ongoing concerns over ISIS and several local terror raids. The threat level has been increased and a new tranche of national security laws passed, which include a metadata law that requires all ISPs to store customers’ data for two years. The flag budget has now been cut, as of the beginning of the new financial year on July 1.
This is part of a more general ramping up on terror and enemies, even those at home. In late June the government and taxpayer-funded broadcaster the ABC ended up in a protracted dispute with the government after the channel allowed former terror suspect Zaky Mallah onto panel show Q&A to ask questions of a minister. Mallah asked Liberal MP Steve Ciobo about the proposed changes to citizenship laws that could strip dual nationals suspected of terrorism of their Australian citizenship. Ciobo is also parliamentary secretary to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The exchange went badly, with Mallah blaming the government for driving young people to join ISIS and Ciobo saying, “But I’m happy to look you straight in the eye and say that I’d be pleased to be part of the Government that would say that you were out of the country.”
Afterward many members of the Coalition attacked the show and the ABC, with the prime minister calling it a “lefty lynch mob.” An internal review is now underway. When the results are released there may be less occasion for flag waving, by the national broadcaster at least.