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.
Commentators from both sides of the political divide have done an excellent job of polarising the debate. Over the next 48 hours, expect to see a raft of articles published which criticise the Government for deciding to implement some strategy at odds with the author’s preferred option. Partisan conservatives will say the measures are just window dressing and won’t work because John Howard’s scheme involved temporary protection visas, and the usual groups will say that the only solution is no solution because there isn’t a solution and nothing to be solved, &c., &c.
Which is a shame because this policy is interesting and should be analysed thoroughly.
You have spent time volunteering with refugees. Kafei (not his real name) has told you all about the horrible things that happens in his country. How could Kafei not deserve a protection visa in Australia? His story sounds so sad.
Take pains to note how Kafei now lives. Mattress on the floor? Bugs everywhere? Shared with others? You don’t want the reader to compare Kafei’s experience to other people living in the same area; you want the reader to compare Kafei’s living condition with their own. How could Kafei not deserve a protection visa? This is so sad.
There’s nothing illegal about Kafei. There is no ‘border protection problem’. We’ve excised the Australian mainland. Offshore processing is cruel. Detention centres are factories for mental illness. Everything is Orwellian and/or Kafkaesque. Why does Tony Abbott only discuss the issue in slogans?
One way you can tell if a person/group is irrational is that they assert things only knowable to a psychic or mystic. ‘They say that they’re doing it for reason X, but really they are doing it for reason Y.’ I’ve now been told several times that Government policy regarding asylum seeker issues is to punish asylum seekers — they don’t really want to set up regional processing mechanisms, they actually want to create an expensive torture machine. Because there are votes in it. Or something.
Reducing risk of longer maritime voyages to Australia
3.72 The panel considers that all possible measures should be implemented to avoid creating an incentive for IMAs taking even greater risks with their lives by seeking to reach the Australian mainland. As a complement to facilities in Nauru and PNG, the panel recommends the government bring forward legislative amendments to the Migration Act 1958 so that arrival on the Australian mainland by irregular maritime means does not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who enter at an excised offshore place, such as Christmas Island (attachment 10).
3.73 Such an amendment will be important to ensure that introduction of processing outside Australia does not encourage asylum seekers to avoid these arrangements by attempting to enter at the Australian mainland. such attempts would increase the existing dangers inherent in irregular maritime travel. legislative change would ensure that all IMAs will be able to be processed outside Australia, regardless of where they first enter the country. [Source]
Oh. How odd. Does that mean the Expert Panel was also interested in votes? How does that work?
Here’s the part that nobody else seems to have spotted: by the time September comes, a lot of the groundwork will be in place for regional processing arrangements. Should the Opposition take Government after the election, they will not have to battle uphill to get these changes in place. They can claim that Temporary Protection Visas and whatnot are effective, while all the while putting the regional processing arrangements into place.