Guess Who? The political guessing game continues

“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.

Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Scott Morrisson and Chris Bowen all share the same view that a humane approach to asylum seekers involves discouraging them from seeking asylum.

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.

Australia's parties during 2007 election
Australia's parties during 2010 election. Images courtesy of politicalcompass.org.

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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Weh Yeoh

Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/wmyeoh) and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.

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6 thoughts on “Guess Who? The political guessing game continues”

  1. What mugwump arrived at Greens being non-Authoritarian?

    They are happy to regulate every area of our lives, they glory in it, and sprain their elbow patting themselves on the back.

    And Labour right of Center? You’ve just lost all credibility except in Trotskyite circles.

    And if all parties have moved right since 1980, i suggest that you look at the failure of leftist policies as the cause.

    I’m sorry to be the one to break the news.

  2. Here is an interesting article posted on the ABC's Religion and Ethics site. The author, Philip Blond, identifies the same problem as Weh has written about, but sadly comes to the conclusion that conservatism is the saviour that could set things straight…..sigh.
    "Phillip Blond is an internationally recognised political thinker and social-economic commentator." -on what planet??! http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/06/1

    1. Thanks for that. I think the author has made a pretty crucial mistake in thinking that (as he noted in the second paragraph), the Labor party represents the "left". As we've illustrated above, have a look at where Labor stands on many issues, and you'll see they're just a slightly more centric version of Liberal.

      This is pretty crucial, because if we then realise that both parties are more right than left, doesn't this invalidate the author's argument that the leftist policies of Labor aren't working? Doesn't it then prove that the conservative policies of both Labor and Liberal aren't working?

      1. Absolutely. Actually I think the only valid point this muttonhead made was that "pragmatism giving way, as it always does, to the politics of personality", which was quite eloquently put (for a muttonhead).

  3. Good stuff Weh. It's scary to see the balance between left and right has gone and the moral obligation and compassion of our Major political parties is lost. With regards to repetition of catch phrases; Repetition = Conditioning and therefore the stupidification of our nation. The greatest weapon Australian political parties have against it's own people is lack of education in schools on our political process and standing up for social issues. A move further to the right will continue to produce ignorance and fear in generations to come.

  4. Great piece, Weh.
    Although slightly different issues are forefront in our national politics at the moment, the trends you are documenting here seem to be at play in Canada as well. The center-left moves farther and farther right (presumably vying for votes), nudging those who were once its more reliable supporters farther and farther left. As you said, this leads to polarization: for the first time, Canada has an NDP official opposition party (which practically no one predicted) with a majority Conservative government in power. How this will play out is anybody's guess. There are plenty of guesses floating around as to what lies ahead, but your explanation of the situation above is a perspective that – if others were thinking along these lines – might have made the recent election results less surprising.
    I think there's one more thing all this repetition of groundless assertions does (sadly): it contributes to apathy among those who actually are engaged. When people hear misrepresentations (and lies) coming at them from ALL angles, then it leads to low voter turnout as well. When all the parties spew the same soundbites regarding very complex issues, people lose their commitment to the system that allows this kind of behaviour to take place.
    Kind of disheartening to see that this may be a global, not a local, phenomenon … But on the other hand, might it mean change is possibly on the horizon? (trying to find the silver lining!).
    Janet

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