There’s nothing new in saying that the public discussion about Australia’s asylum seeker policies is broken. People who want policy change show no capacity to change the opinions of those who disagree with them; and those who want policies similar to the status quo show no desire to listen to alternative opinions. It is a catastrophic failure of deliberative democracy. There are no agreed facts; both ‘sides’ equally guilty of cherry-picking, misrepresenting, and outright deceit. And there are a shit-tonne of celebrity talking heads and people with political motivations adding more chaos to the mix. It is broken and will continue to be broken for the foreseeable future.
It’s in this framework that we have Abyan’s case: an extreme consequence of an unresolved, decades old policy problem.
Language is important. Over at AusOpinion, I’ve argued that claims of ‘neutral’ and ‘apolitical’ language are dangerous lies (link broken). There is, in fact, no way of describing something in completely neutral terms (whatever ‘neutral’ may mean).
As part of my set up to discuss something even more interesting than language — images — I made a quick mention of the asylum seeker debate.
The Government — perhaps inspired by Genesis 2:19 — has begun a process of renaming the policy issues formed of the air, land, and sea. Under the ‘Call A Spade A Spade‘ policy, ‘asylum seekers’ (already a contentious term — are all people who arrive by boat seeking asylum?) will be called ‘illegal entrants’ (a term the minister assures us is analogous to ‘stolen goods’). Shadow Immigration Minister, Richard Marles, complained about the terminology, stating that it was ‘language being used for a political purpose’ which ‘clouds the debate and it acts to work against trying to achieve bipartisanship in the area of immigration policy.’ He didn’t explain what he meant by implying that language could be used for a non-political purpose, or why bipartisanship was the most important goal of immigration policy. [Source]
One day, I’ll learn my lesson and be sufficiently wise to leave well enough alone. That day’s not today.
Many people are — entirely understandably — outraged at the new terminology. They believe — entirely incorrectly — that other words and phrases are more ‘neutral’ or more ‘correct’. Blinded by outrage, they don’t see that the change in terminology provides an excellent opportunity for asylum seeker activists to change the course of the public discussion.
Although I’m on the wrong side of the political spectrum, I enjoy reading Overland. I highly recommend it to others, in fact. Some of the writers they gather there are exceptional, insightful, witty, and clever. Jeff Sparrow’s writing about atheism is easily some of Australia’s best and I sincerely wish it were more widely read by New Atheist weirdoes.
As is inevitable for an organisation that wants to excel and push boundaries of discourse, sometimes Overland’s reach exceeds its grasp. This usually happens when the writer has absolutely no idea about the subject matter. Stephanie Convery’s recent article ‘The age of conservatism‘ is an excellent example of this.
As many as 50 people are feared dead after a boat loaded with asylum seekers sank off the south coast of west Java.
Indonesian rescue authorities, speaking on the basis of information provided by local police, say 22 bodies and 25 survivors have been found.
As many as 30 are still feared missing and without the capability to search at night, or in big seas, there was little hope of them being found before day break. [Source]
Van Badham — understandably, justifiably, entirely reasonably (I don’t want to suggest otherwise) — was upset about the loss of life, particularly of children. What becomes difficult is the transformation of this understandable, justifiable, and entirely reasonable response to a disaster into political language.
Here’s the CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, for example:
The puzzle is how we construct the event in terms of what we expect of our Government and the international community, and in terms of what responsibility people have for themselves. In the process of analysing the issue clinically and methodically, there is a fear that we lose that authentic human response to the disaster.
Julian Burnside has written another article for The Conversation on, amongst a wide variety of other things, his views about asylum seeker policy. I’ve written about Burnside’s views before. Unfortunately for the state of public discussion, we only get two sorts of contributors: the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are terrible; and the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are wonderful. Neither group is adding much to the policy discussion, thus the incorrect perception that parties are in a ‘race to the bottom’ and other such slogans.
But Burnside’s most recent article demonstrates fairly conclusively the extent to which he relies on the bellyfeel prejudice of his readers. I’ve taken an excerpt from his article and rewritten them from a slightly different perspective…
The fine folk at OurSay organised a community forum to engage with candidates in the upcoming election. Even putting aside other problems, I’m still finding that the creativity expressed in connecting people with politicians is still unmatched by the creativity in the actual political content.
Nowhere did this seem to be more true than when the topic of asylum seekers came up. The question itself was quite original: to what extent do our policies about asylum seekers, climate change, &c., reflect an ‘Australia first; everybody else second’ attitude towards policy development. Only one of the candidates — Andrew Leigh (I feel bad for not voting for him, I really do; great guy) — engaged with the deeper philosophical point, even if only for a brief moment. All the candidates went back to the stock standard talking points. ‘If you don’t agree with me, you’re cruel. He’s cruel, she’s cruel, all of them are cruel.’
In the media, asylum seeker issues are discussed with similar lack of creativity and insight. I sort of wondered if media organisations had an interest in stultifying policy discussions. When I’ve discussed asylum seeker policy with people and gone through various issues, they become less angry about it. Outrage sells papers and provides linkbait, so perhaps setting out asylum seeker policy in a coherent, logical way would depress sales in an already threatened sector.
But, tonight, a different thought dawned upon me: what if the major megaphones aren’t even having the same discussion?
Needless to say, the agreement shows that this is really a fourth- or fifth-best option. We should continue to ask whether this approach perverts something important in the unwritten understanding of what a Regional Cooperative Approach (also called a Regional Protection Arrangement, also called a Regional Protection Framework) would be.