“There is nothing compassionate about policies which encourage people to put their lives at risk and that’s the problem,” May 2010.
“There is nothing humane about a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever-present risk of death in leaky boats captained by people-smugglers,” July 2010.
“There’s nothing compassionate about a policy that encourages people to get on boats, especially children,” February 2011.
“There would be nothing humane about an arrangement that encourages children, accompanied or unaccompanied, to get on boats,” June 2011.
These four quotes all tell a similar story – one of a policy that encourages asylum seekers, including children, to hop on boats and risk their lives unnecessarily. I don’t want to spend time trying to debunk this nonsensical argument, and the obvious reasons why Australian politicians tend to focus on pull factors, because considerable time has already been spent doing this in various other pieces on whydev. The point is not so much the content of the message, but the amazing consistency of the message we are being told.
Those who have been anywhere near a TV, newspaper or radio in the last few years will not be surprised by repetitive catchphrases. In between “moving forward” and “stop the boats“, Australians have recently suffered through a whole range of mindless repetitions from both major political parties. Unsurprisingly, both Liberal and Labor party leaders have cottoned on to the well-known fact that repetition works, in that it helps people remember their party’s stance on an issue. However, as consistent as the above message is, it doesn’t represent just one party’s stance, it represents both. In fact, not only does it represent both parties – these quotes have been taken from four separate people.
It probably comes as no surprise that the first quote belongs to Opposition leader Tony Abbott. As for the remaining, the second belongs to Julia Gillard, the third to the Opposition Spokesman for Immigration, Scott Morrison, and the final quote to Chris Bowen, the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.
Keeping in mind that there are four separate authors, have a read of them again. What we are seeing is a truly astounding consistency between the two major political parties on this issue, so much so that the lines are being blurred as to whom is whom. As someone who has come from a family of people who until recently supported Labor, I often find it difficult to distinguish between Labor and Liberal. It’s no surprise then, that for many young people like me, we are seeing an unprecedented shift of support away from Labor, towards the Greens. In fact, amongst young people, there is now an almost even one third split between Labor, Liberal and the Greens. Since 2002, the Greens have seen an increase in support from this demographic from 8% to 27%.
All in all, the shift from Labor to imitate the hard stance of the Liberal Party on this issue is puzzling. As Joe Hildebrand quite rightly points out on The Punch, they will never be able to win more votes by taking this stance. Anyone who wants a tough approach on asylum seekers will always preferentially vote for Liberal, who will always be tougher. In fact, all that this shift is likely to encourage is a further alienation of its core base towards the Greens, as evident from the drift illustrated above.
The Labor party’s adoption of hardline policies typically associated with more right-wing parties is part of a world wide trend of parties drifting to the right. In fact, by analysing both the economic and social policies of Labor, and then plotting them on a graph, the position that the Labor Party currently holds is further to the right than the Liberal Party was in 1980. It’s also clear that that the only party that can truly call itself “left” is the Greens party, and that the Labor and Liberal parties both occupy spaces on the right. The following graphs have been plotted based upon policies during the 2007 and 2010 election runs, and show that even in a short space of time, both parties have drifted further right.
It is therefore clear that not only do we get mass repetition from one party individually, but we also get mass repetition from two parties with some very similarly aligned values, particularly when it comes to refugees.
It is worth paying attention to the effect of this repetition on convincing the public of a certain policy’s merit. Research has shown that when people are paying little attention, simple repetition is effective in persuading people of an argument’s validity, regardless of its merit. However, when people start to pay attention, and the argument is weak, this effect disappears. For the general public, who do not have much interaction with refugees, it is likely that they will pay scant attention to the actual logic behind the argument that Abbott and others espouse. The more likely scenario is that they will hear it across various media, and may not actually question the underlying facts behind such a policy. This means that, as far as psychology is concerned, simply hearing the argument repeated several times may lead to being convinced that this policy makes sense.
As an interesting side note, the most effective number of repetitions for a statement to be believed is likely to be somewhere between 3 and 5. Coincidentally, I started off this piece with the same argument 4 times, and therefore, as the reader, you’re probably all agreeing that the humane option is to scare unaccompanied children away from fleeing persecution!
If we perceive that simple repetition leads to at least some retention of an argument, and that this argument seeps into our subconscious without us knowing it, then I often wonder if we are also seeing a lower threshold for accepting hardline policies for asylum seekers. I wonder if, through the process of repetition and desensitisation, we are more likely to accept “tough” policies.
Immediately after the Malaysian refugee deal (which involved sending asylum seekers from Australia to Malaysia for processing) was announced, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia, Alan Vernon, to my surprise threw his support behind the scheme. Vernon was quoted as saying that this could prove to be a positive turning point for refugee human rights, despite Malaysia’s poor record on the treatment of refugees. Recently, Marion Le, a refugee lawyer who was previously critical of John Howard’s Pacific Solution, has said that she would encourage a reopening of the Nauru detention centre, because at least it was better than processing refugees in Malaysia. Finally, the outrage that occurred after the mistreatment of cows being exported to Indonesia was recently revealed on ABC’s Four Corners has far exceeded the reaction of the general public to the live exporting of human beings to Malaysia.
Because of the constant barrage of repetition that both Labor and Liberal partake in, are we losing our way on human rights?
On this issue, I would rather Australians draw a line in the sand and stand up for what is right, rather than for what is politically convenient. There’s a great deal of wisdom imparted in the following words, spoken at the Lowy Institute in July last year. Both political parties would do well to heed the advice that one shouldn’t take a particular stance on refugees to try and win over the public, because this sort of political posturing doesn’t work. Rather they should simply take the stance that they think is morally correct.
“If you are hard headed, you’re dismissed as hard hearted, if you are open hearted you’re marginalised as supporting open borders. I say to those engaged in this type of rhetoric: ‘Stop selling our national character short. We are better than this. We are much better than this.’”
These words were spoken by Julia Gillard not more than a year ago. She would be doing well to take on board her own advice.
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