Winning the debate on asylum seekers

The theme for Refugee Week 2014 is ‘Restoring Hope’. The reason we need to restore hope is that it has been destroyed by government policies.  It’s therefore important to understand what the government is doing and why.

Ian Haney Lopez, the author of Dog Whistle Politics, correctly points out that ‘Dog whistle politics doesn’t come out of some desire to hurt minorities. It comes out of a desire to win votes. It’s racism as a strategy. It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s considered, it’s the decision to achieve one’s own ends, here winning votes, by stirring racial animosity….public racism has evolved. The way in which racism, the way in which racial divisions are stoked in public discourse has changed. And now it operates on two levels. On one level, it allows plausible deniability. This isn’t really about race, it’s just about welfare…And on another, there’s a subtext, an underground message which can be piercingly loud, and that is: minorities are threatening us.’

The government is spending $8 million per year on spin that translates into a multi-million dollar media advertising campaign because of the extent of the media coverage given to it.

As a polling issue the government relies heavily on this issue, both to get elected and then to maintain support. That’s why they have to stick to the hard line needed to maintain popular perception that their policy is working. They will also rely on the same perception to get re-elected.

Ramping up the issue was easy.  They knew people have a degree of innate racism and fear for their own security territorially and economically.  Those concerns are allayed only through exposure to individuals from other nations and informed understanding, something many Australians unfortunately lack.

But people are always interested in what they perceive to be a threat to their own interests. Perhaps that’s why by and large there has been silence from the public about the colossal expenditure on offshore detention centres but public outrage about comparatively minor proposed cuts to welfare which involve direct personal consequences.

Would any Australian seriously contest the closure of offshore detention centres if the money this saved was immediately redirected and equally distributed among pensioners, single parents, the disadvantaged and to improve education and health?

So the government knows that a perceived threat is a great voting issue. What the government needs to do is show how effective they are by eliminating the problem of the boats arriving on our shores, but they also need to perpetuate the fear by saying that the threat is always going to be there and you need them to contain it.

By creating an Australian border force, politicising the navy and involving at least six separate government departments, the government is creating a perception that they are the ones to effectively deal with a problem which plays on that fear.  The fear is neutralised as long as the government maintains its stance. All cleverly portrayed as a service to society.

Curiously, in July 2012 a poll confirmed that 78% of Australians believed that politicians were playing politics about the welfare of asylum seekers rather than being genuinely concerned about them. Unfortunately, playing politics about an issue doesn’t mean the issue isn’t a legitimate popular concern, and you can increase that concern by playing politics about the issue.

What’s the issue? It’s the collaboration of the Australian public.

A UMR Research poll in January this year suggests that 60% of Australians want the Abbott Government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.

This month a Lowy Institute poll confirmed that more than 70% of Australians support the Abbott government’s Sovereign Borders Policy, 60% of voters say asylum seekers should be processed offshore and nearly half of the population identify asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat as a critical threat.

The polls probably correctly reflect the overall level of popular support for what the government is doing. That level of popular support in turn probably reflects the popular perception of refugees as a threat, either from the general feeling that any refugees are invading one’s space or for the more specific perception of refugees as threatening a person’s economic well being in a country where the screws seem to be tightening for the average person and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Our government’s approach has historical precedents.  The use of symbolism like stop the boats billboards and posters, the dehumanisation of asylum seekers by reducing them to numbers, the deployment of the navy, the polarisation of groups, the stripping away of culture and identity and the severance of all human connection is a poisonous brew that can only end badly.  What it ultimately invites is a silent permission for inhumane acts.

Unfortunately the legal system can’t effectively deal with this issue.

Legal experts have continued to highlight that Australia has no constitutionally enshrined Bill of Rights; that many important international treaties have been signed but not been implemented in Australian law through legislation; that Australian Courts can only enforce obligations under domestic law not international law; that it is difficult to get a ruling that the government has breached the Refugee Convention as there is no treaty body and one state would have to pursue a case against another in the International Court of Justice; and, as Professor Gillian Triggs points out, the common law can always be overridden by contrary and unambiguous legislation passed by Parliament and the courts are powerless if Parliament passes legislation that breaches fundamental freedoms.

So this is not a problem that the legal system can properly address. The only way it can be addressed is by changing the level of popular support for the fundamentally inhumane policies currently supported by 70% of the Australian population.

Changing the current popular consensus won’t occur by confrontation. Part of the process of reducing this misplaced support non-confrontationally is understanding why people hold their views or beliefs, acknowledging that people have a right to hold different views on different subjects and then endeavouring to change those views.

Sometimes that can be done logically but in this sort of situation it almost certainly can’t be done by logical argument alone. What I think is required is firstly, putting up simple objective facts about the situation; secondly, putting up logical counter-arguments as an alternative viewpoint rather than the correct or only way of properly seeing things, and thirdly, by focusing on arguments or approaches that create internal conflict or doubt in persons who hold those views. For example by focusing on the sense of justice and morality that most people claim to have.

Winning the argument and changing the current trajectory has to be done carefully and unfortunately will be a long term process.  There is no instant fix.  And regrettably it’s not something that our legal system can fix.

Public protests and meetings certainly are helpful in showing governments and other citizens our concern about these inhumane policies and their dire personal consequences for the people affected by them. But as I’ve said, I think we all need to work towards gently persuading that majority of Australians who support these policies that their fears are unfounded, that they have been manipulated by “dog whistle politics” and that their innate sense of humanity and fairness is a far better guide to how people – these real, individual people and their families – should be treated than the draconian policies of our current government.

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2014

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  • Marilyn Shepherd

    The refugee convention though is domestic law and has been since 1992 – it’s Article 36 of the Migration Act and no parliament has removed it.

  • Niko

    this is indeed a very profound argument, and for me, confronting in that I find it hard to “work towards gently persuading” the Australian population, but I believe it is an accurate assessemnt – but what about Marilyn Sheperd’s arguement below?