The asylum seeker debate

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Having put the mining tax “to bed”, political commentators are now stating that Julia Gillard’s (@juliagillard) next big test before the election is to resolve the “asylum seeker issue”.

The Liberals have long capitalised on sensationalising the “threat” of being swamped by boat people. Howard used this as a wedge issue against Labor for years, focusing on stirring up fears in the community about foreigners. The dog whistle politics of this tactic was aimed at legitimising the latent xenophobia that exists in some communities towards foreigners of particular ethnic backgrounds. Howard let people feel that it was okay to be worried that refugees and foreigners were a threat to the Australian way of life, and that there was a hoard of foreigners wanting to come to Australia by boat.

Recent election-eve ads by Tony Abbott featuring pictures of boats, big red arrows and a map of Australia is a more open form of stirring up xenophobia.

For progressive people who are concerned at the latent (or even overt) racism inherent in much of the conservative commentary about asylumn seekers, it is important to recognise that language is powerful.

Conservatives have successfully made the “asylum seekers issue” one about security, both the security of our borders, but also security of our homes and families. For example, conservatives warn about the “health risks” of African refugees “brining in disease”. They warn of “criminal gangs” of Asians or people of Middle Eastern appearances. They warn of the threat to our community from the construction of mosques or Muslim schools. They warn of the threat of terrorism from “terrorists sneaking into Australia on boats”. They warn about foreigners not intregrating or accepting “Australian values”.

The conserative “frame” is one that is variously subtly racist (generally Liberal MPs or Andrew Bolt) or overtly racist (anonymous “shit sheets”, or One Nation-types). It is very powerful. It relies on fear – one of the most powerful emotions. And the most powerful form of fear is fear of the unknown.

How can progressive activists combat this?

This graph, while well-intentioned, is not very effective. Via @robcorr.

For a start, we need to recognise that most people who are concerned about asylum seekers have formed their views based on their gut feelings. A purely information based campaign that logically points out the small number of asylum seekers that come into Australia will not work.

A lot of refugee rights groups for example point out that the overall intake of refugees is miniscule, and the number of asylum seekers that arrive by boat is even smaller. This approach will not work in changing people’s perceptions, because it does not fit with people’s lived experiences. Many people who are convinced by the conservative frame can see foreigners in their communities. They don’t really care if these foreigners are legitimate refugees, skilled migrants or international students – the point is that there is a perception of a noticable increase in non-Anglo people in the community.

Similarly, there are statistics that get used by pro-refugee advocates along the lines of “95 percent of boat people are genuine refugees”. These sentiments don’t recognise that many Australians who are worried about the “influx” of foreigners don’t like any new arrivals, regardless of whether they are legitimate or not.

Most Australians also don’t consider themselves racist, even if they hold views that stereotype certain ethnicities or nationalities. Progressive commentators that label concerns about asylum seeker arrivals as “racist” are actively alientating themselves from the mainstream debate, and are turning off the very people they should be talking to.

Julia Gillard’s first words on the asylum seeker debate as Prime Minister were therefore effective at getting people to listen. She said that it was legitimate to be worried or concerned, and called for a “debate”. While there may be concerns from pro-refugee activists that this legitimises racism, it is an effective way to get people to listen with open minds about a topic that they traditionally would never listen to Labor about.

With the fear of being labeled a “racist” off the agenda, Gillard may have opened the space for progressive pro-refugee activists to actually address what really concerns many Australians. It may also help ensure that the people concerned about immigration may be more open to listening to what pro-refugee activists have to say.

I recently heard an anecdote about a Canadian public awareness from the 1980s about the AIDS epidemic. The campaign was well and truly focus grouped and during one of the focus groups, a middle aged man and a younger gay man got into an argument about the issue. A third focus group participant interjected with the line “let’s just talk about this” – which led (so the anecdote goes) to the campaign slogan of “Let’s Talk About AIDS”. Regardless of the truth of this annecdote, it is a useful story from this point of view.

The asylum seeker debate is one that has many strong emotions from both progressive and conservative points of view. Julia Gillard’s mantra of “let’s have an open debate” to a certain extent defuses the debate. By saying “let’s talk about asylum seekers”, it reduces the polarisation and lets oxygen in for the progressive side who have been largely sidelined. It makes people more receptive to other ideas – so long as they are expressed respectfully and in an understanding manner. It lets pro-refugee groups have a geniune opportunity to change the views of people who have been worried about immigration and refugees.

I hope that Gillard and others make the most of this opportunity.

UPDATE: Polling on immigration

Possum Pollytics has crunched some numbers from a recent Essential Research polling report on attitudes towards immigration. The numbers are stark and underscore why its important for progressive activists to change the way we talk about refugees and immigration in general.

On average, Australia’s population increases by about 300,000 per year (less than 2%). Do you think this is too high, too low or about right?

These numbers underscore the difficulty facing pro-refugee activists. Most Australians think we have too high an immigation level. Even Greens Party supporters hold this view (far more than Labor or Liberal supporters actually) – many probably justifying this view on the basis of sustainability.(This graphic may be updated since there is clearly some missing data from the Greens Party column.)

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