Amongst the blur of intelligence-gathering leaks, diplomatic scandals, Gonski manoeuvres, carbon price ultimatums and debt ceiling negotiations, the plight of asylum seekers slipped just a bit further from the Australian public’s consciousness this week.
As a result, only a fraction of the small proportion of voters who are still paying attention to federal politics would be aware of the latest indignity imposed by our government on those who’ve fled to Australia to escape persecution.
Mere handfuls of people would know that Labor and the Greens voted together in the Senate to prevent the reintroduction of Howard-era Temporary Protection Visas, and that in response the government used an alternative law-making route to impose even harsher restrictions on the 33,000 asylum seekers living in Australia.
This lack of awareness is exactly what the Abbott Government likes.Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. Image via abc.net.au
“We have shut the permanent protection visa shop,” Scott Morrison said in a press conference yesterday.
Clive Palmer likened the approach to that of a “neo-fascist state”; shadow spokesperson for immigration Richard Marles said the government was “being mean for the sake of it”; Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said they were “drunk on power”.
Almost every facet of the government’s response to asylum seekers is a cynical exercise in manipulation: of official language, our basest instincts, the limits of voters’ empathy and rage, and the media’s need for regular gobs of premasticated news.
All of this is done with only one goal in mind – to erase asylum seekers from our consciousness. Using the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to public policy, the government hopes the disappearance of not only the boats and asylum seekers from our screens, but also any discussion about them, will lead the community to conclude the ‘issue’ has been resolved.
Calling the exercise Operation Sovereign Borders plays to voters’ deepest prejudices that terrorists are sneaking into Australia or, even worse, gatecrashing foreigners are taking our jobs. Referring to asylum seekers as ‘illegal arrivals by boat’ reinforces their perceived illegitimacy. And dressing up the civil initiative as a military operation provides a handy justification for locking down the release of everything other than the barest information.
Minimal information is also the core of the government’s media management (or manipulation) strategy. By refusing to announce boats as they reach Australian waters, or give detailed information to parliament about arrivals or people in offshore processing facilities, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has transformed his weekly press conferences into the only opportunity for the media to get official asylum seeker stories.
Even then, the news value of the stories is constrained by Morrison’s fanciful notion of having to keep ‘operational’ matters confidential. This limited news value, combined with the short notice being given for the time and location of the weekly press conference (usually somewhere other than Canberra), can be enough to dissuade most senior journalists from attending. Nevertheless, a few continue to persevere.
Despite the government’s best efforts, Operation Don’t You Worry About That continues to be fraught with bad luck or incompetence, depending on one’s point of view.Scott Morrison at an Operation Sovereign Borders press conference. Image via sbs.
This is the problem with trying to slow down the media cycle by rationing information: some other information will simply fill the vacuum. While Morrison was hiding behind Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell’s khaki skirts and refusing to provide operational information, other inconvenient information was coming to light – as inconvenient information is wont to do.
Diplomatic dramas over a former regime’s tapping of the Indonesian President’s mobile phone put the focus back onto the government’s reliance on the good will and efficacy of Indonesia to stop asylum seekers.
The callous treatment of an asylum seeker who was prevented from staying in hospital with her newborn was a stark reminder of other pregnant women held in detention and the risks and stresses they face.
Reports of an Australian border patrol vessel inadvertently ripping the bow off an asylum seeker boat underlined the perilously poor state of these boats and the impracticality of most tow-back efforts.
And the horrific tales of rape, self-mutilation and suicide that have emerged from the offshore facilities compel us to question what is it about Australia that is so worth protecting that it justifies subjecting other humans to such inhumanity.
Meanwhile the media cycle churns through a different news story every few minutes and those on social media abandon yesterday’s bandwagon for the fresh outrage of the day.
Stopping the flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat was a key plank of the Coalition’s 2013 election strategy and a major point of contrast with Labor’s ‘failure’ to maintain the integrity of Australia’s borders and protect the nation from the northern hordes.
Unfortunately for Abbott, the very same accusation of failure (with associated perceptions of incompetence) can be levelled at him if he can’t demonstrate that he has ‘stopped’ the boats as promised.
Stopping the regular provision of detailed information while exploiting the nation’s compassion fatigue may be a tempting way of implying the job has been done. But only continual vigilance, a refusal to be distracted or diverted by the ‘latest’ issue, and a firm commitment to social justice will prevent asylum seekers from fading from our minds and our consciences.
MORE ARTICLES BY PAULA MATTHEWSON
*Paula Matthewson has worked in and around federal politics for nearly 25 years, variously as a media adviser and lobbyist but now as a freelance writer. She’s been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009, and in 2013 founded the popular group blog AusOpinion. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog and tweets as @Drag0nista.