“‘Illegal entries’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘jump the queue’. Why do politicians repeat prejudiced clichés? It keeps empathy at bay, so voters don’t have to think too much, says one expert.

Repetition of a simple phrase like ‘illegal boats’ influences the way you think about a subject even if it’s wrong, former political advisor and author Don Watson says.

Politicians from both Labor and the Coalition have referred to asylum seekers as “illegals” before. Every time “illegal” is used in reference to asylum seekers, refugee advocates, lawyers, immigration experts and academics are quick to dispute it, pointing out that it is legal to seek asylum. The Refugee Council of Australia and the UN also say it’s wrong to use the word “illegal” to describe asylum seekers… However, once the discussion reaches the level of conventions, articles and legal nuances, the most simplistic message – ‘illegals are coming to Australian shores’ – is already in the memory of the public.

According to Don Watson, former political speechwriter and advisor… “If you wanted to disenfranchise refugees, and leave the public thinking they have no rights, then call them ‘illegal’ over and over again. “The opportunity is there, and politicians will take the opportunity. Any more complex argument will only cloud the message.”

On April 22, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott used the phrase “illegal boats” on a billboard, tweeting a photograph of himself and shadow minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection Michael Keenan, standing in front of it. There was a backlash, and the next day Mr Abbott tweeted again, but using the word “unauthorised”. It was not the first time Mr Abbott used the term, and it was not the first time he was criticised for it.

Mr Keenan has not backed away from the term. On April 26, Mr Keenan’s website published a media release about “the arrival of another two illegal boats”. Shadow minister for Immigration and Citizenship Scott Morrison released similar statements at the same time, prolonging the life of the Coalition’s disputed message.

“Most people don’t have time or can’t be bothered making the time to inform themselves better so they will live on [those] messages,” said Mr Watson. “It’s fairly easy to get away with, and it seems to politicians to be necessary. Both sides have been equally guilty. Labor has been horrendously on message now for 15 years.”

Politicians on both sides of the fence have used the phrase. Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to “foreign nationals coming to our shore illegally” in an address to the Lowy Institute in 2010. Other Labor heavyweights have also spoken of “illegal immigrants” in various contexts.

“I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hardline approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity, and I make no apology whatsoever having a hardline and humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers.” (Kevin Rudd, 2009).

“There are different legal basis and status for those people who arrive by boat – the illegal or unlawful maritime arrivals.” (Stephen Smith, 2010)…

“Australia is a good hearted-country, but we cannot afford to be an easy target for the people-smugglers – who are the real villains in this issue, not the illegal immigrants.” (Kim Beazley 2001)

It’s an irresistible temptation for politicians to simplify and distort by constantly being on-message, said Mr Watson, and its prevalence is a symptom of the pressure on politicians to fill an expanded news cycle.

“[Politicians] fill it with can’t and clichés and often with prejudice, with tendentious phrases that are designed to fill the public’s mind and not leave room for anything else.”

“’Illegal entries’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘jumping the queue’. They are all prejudiced clichés but they remain prominent in the discourse on asylum seekers…

It also helps keep any kind of empathy at bay, so people don’t have to imagine it were their family in the situation of an asylum seeker.

“You don’t want that. You actually want these people to think ‘illegals.’ And then you don’t have to think anything more.”

Mr Watson said the political language of today has borrowed a lot from the language of corporate management, “which has this great capacity for saying nothing while appearing to say something”. “So the political landscape has become more and more like a PowerPoint presentation, without any real sentences, without any sign of spontaneous thought or any kind of interaction between the governed and the governors, and more like a series of slides with bullet points.” Corporate management-speak has spread through the public service, Mr Watson says, and it’s only natural that politics has picked it up. “[Politics] has as much need to limit people’s thinking as management does. Because in the end you want them to only think the message,” he said.

“They message you, they don’t speak to you. It’s insulting, I think, to anyone who wants to think about it. It’s also immensely frustrating, and it echoes perfectly what people feel when consultants come to their communities, or management types come to their communities.”

“It drives people mad but they overcome it by not reading what comes in the post or not listening to anyone. In a way it dulls the political mind, it leaves us all in a semi-coma.”

“You can ignore anything if you don’t know about it.”


The issue will likely rear up again before the Federal Election in September. So where do those in charge of our national discourse stand? SBS contacted both of the major parties to dissect the controversy surrounding this powerful term… None would specifically answer whether they agreed with the Refugee Council of Australia…

Mr O’Connor’s office referred all questions to an answer given to radio host John Lawsa few days’ prior.

John Laws: Okay. And this expression ‘illegal immigrants’ has got to go because it is not illegal to claim asylum, is it?

Brendan O’Connor: Yeah. No, it’s not, it’s not. And we will return people that are not but it is inappropriate to use that term. In fact the Press Council has already called Mr Abbott up on that.

…When questioned by SBS on the legal or political advice behind choosing to use the word “illegal” on the April 22 billboard, Mr Abbot’s media advisor referred SBS to a statement made at a ‘People’s Forum’ in Geelong, which included the following statement: “And on the vexed question of are we entitled to call them illegal arrivals by boat?  Article 31 of the UN convention specifically refers to people who arrive illegally”. But the context in which Article 31 uses the term was not provided. When asked if Mr Abbott was concerned that referencing the Article without explaining the context may confuse Australians or inflame negative sentiment towards asylum seekers, SBS was given a list of Labor politicians who had also used the word “illegal” in the past, and told that the Geelong statement “did explain the context”…”

For full, original text visit: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1761364/Analysis-Illegals-and-the-erosion-of-empathy