Asylum seekers

Twirling towards freedom

White Noise

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Last week, the Associated Press announced that it was banning the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its stylebook. Many major news organisations in the United States had already vowed to stop using the term, believing that it dehumanised those it described. Whether AP’s decision had anything to do with external pressure, or whether it was simply a matter of the changing the label to refer to “behaviour” rather than “people” isn’t too important. The change has brought about an interesting experiment: can language be used to alter the way people think for the better? 

Australia has a storied history of seemingly casual comments being promoted to immortality through endless repetition. In 1989 Prime Minister Hawke called a boat of recently arrived Cambodian asylum seekers “queue jumpers.” For the next quarter of a century, until the “no advantage” policy was introduced in August last year, we conveniently forgot that there was no queue. 

When Abbott first uttered the phrase ‘Stop the boats’ during the 2010 federal election campaign, it wasn’t an arbitrary choice of words, but one designed to strategically embed itself in the minds of voters. Abbott’s claim that ‘We stopped the boats before, we can stop the boats again,’ became an enduring one. Unfortunately, the small matter of this claim not being accurate remained unchallenged, and along the way a popular phrase eventually became popular thought.

After a boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived 100m off Geraldton’s shore this week, the first to make it so far south in many years, a new batch of rigorously composed phrases took their shot at immortality. WA Premier Colin Barnett said that, “For a boat, in broad daylight, to have sailed onto the Australian mainland, in the south of the state and just blatantly sail into Geraldton, that is extraordinary.” 

Blatant: adj. “Done openly and unashamedly.”

For his part, Opposition Immigration spokesman said Scott Morrison said "The Government's border failures have got to the point where people just think they can turn up anywhere along the Australian coast," he said.

Asylum seekers, unashamedly seeking asylum, and journeying to a country where they might reasonably expect to receive it (the Geraldton boat was en route to New Zealand) is hardly unheard of, but the damage had been done. After reading these comments, I dismally typed ‘boats’ into Twitter’s search function and watched the rhetoric spread. ‘Next thing and boat people will be rocking up in the Pitt St Mall!’ worried one user. 

Later this week, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor remarked that the WA Premier’s words were unhelpful and untrue. ‘'It is not unprecedented; there were 11 boats that arrived in WA during the Howard years alone,'' O'Connor told Fairfax radio. ''The Premier is wrong in his language. His language is bordering on hysteria, as it has happened many times before. This is rare and it won't happen often, and I think it is unfair and unreasonable for the Premier to describe it [as extraordinary].''

As earworms go, “Unfair and unreasonable” isn’t quite as catchy as those deployed by Barnett and Morrison. Hopefully, the words that people remember from this incident will be those written on the sign, held aloft as the boat sailed into Geraldton. “We want to go to New Zealand help us.”   


Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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