Crocodile tears

Having been away for several weeks far from the nearest internet station or telegraph pole, it was ferociously depressing to return to reality and spend a week freebasing Australia’s news media in an effort to recalibrate.

Funnily enough though, it really only took about three seconds. On one of the last days of my trip, I stumbled across a TV in Perth showing ABC News Breakfast, on which the story was of the Prime Minister’s recent bump in Newspoll. This just happened to be effectively the same news story as the day I LEFT for my holiday three weeks prior, only shifting ‘bump’ for ‘dip’. The same talking heads, basically the same stock footage, the same politicians spouting the same lines about polls not mattering, and so on.

It was deeply depressing. Depressing to realise that my news fetishism is utterly redundant, that Australia’s news landscape is effectively the same as a US daytime soap, in which one can tune out for three to four months, only to find the same two characters in the same jacuzzi having the same conversation about the same infidelity.

But something more depressing occurred with the handing down of the Houston Report into asylum seekers and the official response to it.

Honestly, we may as well just take the ALP out back and whack it with a shovel for all the moral authority it retains. Time and again, this party that has for decades campaigned as one of the progressive-centre fails on questions of conscience.

There are so many impractical, expedient, callous and contradictory positions in this debate now that it’s hard to know where to start, but here goes.

First and foremost, it’s truly difficult to believe that members of the ALP who are voting for these law changes are doing so for any reason other than fear of electoral punishment, having been comprehensively cornered for a decade by their opponents. Julia Gillard has spoken, several times, about the immoral nature of Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, yet now stands astride a policy that happily detains the world’s most disenfranchised individuals for an indefinite period without having committed a crime.

Sinking migrant ship. In the Mediterranean.

ALP MPs who attempt to stay on their moral high horse, claiming that their decision has been a hard one, but they feel they must act to resolve the problem, overlooks the key question: no one can adequately describe what the problem is.

For all the frankly unbelievable displays of tearful compassion on display, it is evident to me that the ‘problem’ is not that people are dying at sea, but that the broad national consensus is that we simply don’t want these poor, needy brown people in our country.

The idea that all of  sudden our politicians are motivated by compassion for people ‘dying at sea’ is beyond belief. People have been dying on crappy boats since before SIEV X in 2001. Ben Pobjie has already said this best. This drastic shift in approach by Labor under the guise of ‘compassion’ simply shows that when events conspire to keep the issue of asylum seekers in the public mind, even Labor’s ‘left’ feel compelled to ditch their morals for fear of electoral reprisals.

The real question of what the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers is, is the debate that actually needs having, yet is one that our politicians studiously avoid, knowing that they simply lack the ability to solve it in an electorally expedient manner.

Presently, the problem is people ‘dying at sea’. The sudden change in rhetoric to compassion does little to shield its true meaning – that we simply don’t want these people. The ‘problem’ is ‘foreigners coming unbidden’. The solution, therefore, becomes, stopping their arrival, hence Stopping The Boats.

But going back to first principles, let us reconsider the problem. It is in no way a practical problem for us to accept more migrants. We have a labour shortage, and long-term capacity constraints that are best solved by a vibrant migration program. The ‘problem’, as it stands, is that we have regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East with enormous numbers of displaced people and refugees. These people have few places to go that have effective resettlement programs. In the Australian instance, Afghans and Sri Lankans cannot seek asylum in Indonesia or Malaysia.

They cannot get work, or educate their children. They can only wait for an indefinite period of time in camps, in the hope that they will be accepted by another country like us. If you’re in Jakarta somewhere facing this, and the prospect of constant harrassment by police and locals, the prospect of a detention centre on Christmas Island (or Nauru for that matter) seems appealing. Indefinite detention in a camp with food and support is better than the threat of having your tent burned down by corrupt local police.

In other words, there’s no real guarantee that this new plan will do much to deter anyone. If the prospect of death at sea won’t deter you, why on Earth would imprisonment? So, even in the face of this new regime, the answer remains a no-brainer. You get on the boat. And even if we manage to stifle the approach of the boats to our shores, the ‘problem’ doesn’t go away. Asylum seekers don’t just vanish because we don’t accept them. If they did, then perhaps the ‘compassion’ argument will carry weight. Instead, these asylum seekers can simply die elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

One final thought: the fact that we routinely, and thoughtlessly, use the word ‘processed’ to discuss the manner in which we treat these people speaks volumes. Would it be too much to ask to stop using the word ‘processed’ to discuss human beings?

It’s a measure of Australia’s collective conscience that we measure the success of our refugee program by how many people we can keep away. Irrespective of how well the ALP have ‘managed’ the ‘economy’ since their election, their complete forfeiture of any claim to moral authority is a sad indictment of a once proud political establishment that occasionally, just occasionally, would do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

At least Gillard’s ‘problem’ of having to deal with the asylum seekers issue is solved. I hope that helps her sleep at night.

The power of words or “For fuck’s sake, stop saying ‘Green Tape’”

The word ‘spin’ gets tossed around a great deal when people discuss politics, particularly in the abstract. “It’s all spin, you can’t believe a word she says,” is a common refrain around the dinner table in much of Australia right now. But this takes a narrow view of what ‘spin’ can really mean.

In the first instance, when the word gained common usage, it tended to apply to the re-working of a negative into a positive. While real estate agents had been promoting ‘renovators dreams’ for decades, politicians discussing rising interest rates as indicative of strong economic growth, and ignoring poor economic growth to instead focus on falling interest rates was fresher.

But that was then. The world of political communications has evolved a great deal. ‘Spin’, as we would know it, is new. Rebuilt. It is proactive. It is insidious, it is everywhere and worst of all it is hugely effective.

We are only recently emerging from a hugely unedifying ‘debate’ over the asylum seeker ‘problem’. Without getting bogged down in the various sides of that debate, it is the language used during it that is of most relevance. Over the course of the last decade, the phrase ‘solving the asylum seeker problem’ has become central. No one has seriously addressed what that ‘problem’ is, flitting between ‘protecting Australian jobs’ and the epic concern troll that is ‘stopping people dying at sea’.

To the public, however, that ‘problem’ has long been defined by three simple words:

“Stop the boats”.

A massive, intractable, international challenge, full of economic, social, and foreign policy causes and implications is distilled to an easily digestible tidbit. One that localises the global refugee issue, and frames it in such a way that it is near-impossible to argue for anything but an inhumane response without appearing slightly unhinged to the average voter.

Never mind that we are party to a coalition of nations that has spent a decade bombing at least two of the countries where these desperate refugees are coming from. Never mind that the mere thousands of refugees we face pales in comparison with the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps alone. This problem is about stopping boats, and all the terror that implies to people inclined to be terrified.

How about we try another line?

“Great big new tax on everything”.

Anyone notice how the debate around climate change almost never involves the discussion of climate change anymore? The effectiveness of this line has completely shifted the debate around climate to one of ‘who will lose and how much’, one that is custom-built to absolutely devastate support for tax increases of any kind. No matter that the carbon price is not big, not a tax, nor on everything; the line works, and nobody seems to even want to talk about the threat of climate change, unless they’re a particularly frothy-mouthed shock jock eager to denounce it as a hoax.

On this site, Barrie Cassidy spelled out wonderfully where the Prime Minister foot-faulted on this issue, so there’s no point diving into the minutiae. Suffice to say, here lies another instance where the words our leaders use are hugely influential in determining how the public thinks on issues of major import.

There’s a third, newer one, too.

“Green tape”.

While it’s important to note that there is certainly a great deal of unnecessary duplication of environmental regulations in Australia, and a case to be made that there can be more efficiency in protecting our environment, the phrase ‘Green tape’ is a work of dark genius.

Serving as a proxy for ‘removing environmental protections’ it conveys, in two simple words, a message that resonates deeply with the public, appearing clear-headed and realistic, and perfectly concealing the profit-motivated organisations behind the push from Coalition state governments to gain control of the environmental approvals process.

Everyone understands ‘red tape’, and they know it to be bad. Everyone knows ‘green’ means ‘environmental’. Thus, these are bad, wasteful, bureaucratic environmental impediments to Getting Things Done.

See how this works? There is always discussion in the media of how the modern Australian media consumer is ‘more sophisticated’ and can ‘see through the spin’. And this is certainly true; the immediate mockery of the PM’s ‘real Julia’ and ‘moving forward’ and [name your giggle-inducing attempt at 'creating a narrative' here] demonstrates that much.

But this overlooks the fact that the communications guys have grown more sophisticated too. They don’t want to talk directly to voters anymore. They need a pithy phrase that will frame a given political debate in such a way as to make their position unassailable. It’s not about convincing the public to agree with their view. It’s about making the public think about a political debate in such a way that their view is the ONLY answer.

So perhaps that is the next step in the public’s media awakening. A new generation, savvy to the tricks played on them, will learn that any issue is about more than the slogan their political leaders throw at them. Going by the standard of debate we’ve seen in recent years here, one can only hope.