What happened, Mr Doherty?

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’.

transfield notice

Australian journalist Ben Doherty’s photograph appeared early in 2015 on a notice distributed to staff of Transfield, the company that manages facilities in which refugees are confined. The instruction was simple: “Do not exchange any information with this gentleman.” Mr Doherty was sent to Coventry by Transfield because he collects information about refugees and publishes it in newspapers.

Mr Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explained that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, supporters of the policy say, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. Governments of other countries have not been as tough or as practical as Australia’s has been.

The reference to fiction’s role in politics made me think of Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, and about the year itself, about who was prime minister (Bob Hawke), and whether our world is more like that novel now than it was then, or less. The details of history seem surreal in retrospect; a sure sign that the reality of even one’s own life eventually turns into ‘story’.

Many think Orwell’s warnings were apt. We do appear to have something like perpetual war and an ever-escalating state of emergency that requires citizens accept measures hostile to their own freedoms and privacy. Governments almost everywhere seem more susceptible to forces outside the ballot booth. Orwell was right to warn us that the language of politicians tries to make lies sound truthful and the wind seem solid. The evidence is everywhere and on every side of politics.

When I try to find information about the behavior of my own government and only discover that press releases have been removed to another location, I immediately think “memory hole”. Political debate is more furious and more anonymous than ever, but the outcomes narrower: the current public circumlocution about refugees forces us think of the ‘problem’ as a moral or political struggle where the blame is always somewhere else or in another ideological camp: “We must stop people drowning at sea.” “People-smugglers are evil.” “Why is the government torturing refugees on Manus Island? “


After the Transfield affair, Mr Ben Doherty was Thomson Reuters fellow at Oxford University in the Trinity term of 2015; and his dissertation, Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over asylum in Australia, narrates the events, rhetorical changes and policy manoeuvres of Australia’s response to asylum seekers.

Lam Binh was first. The self-taught sailor and four friends found Australia from Vietnam navigating with a single page torn from a school atlas. The page went no further south than Timor: from there he was simply following a hand-drawn arrow on the bottom of the page. But on April 26, 1976 he sighted land, and piloted his battered junk, the Kien Giang, into Darwin harbour, where he dropped anchor and waited. Lam had a speech prepared for the immigration officer who boarded the next morning: “Good morning. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia”.

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The then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians could not be moved.

Every change of government and every new wave of asylum seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language.

Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. However,

It is important to note a distinction apparent in Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and those who arrive by other methods (through the offshore humanitarian program or by plane). “The public makes a distinction between refugees selected under the off-shore program and self-selected asylum seekers,” Betts says in her analysis of opinion poll data. “Hostility to boat people does not mean hostility to refugees.” Australians are broadly supportive—75 per cent in favour—of refugees who have first been assessed overseas, then being resettled in the country. McKay et al argue that government and media narratives contrasting boat-borne asylum seekers with resettled refugees are crucial to public perceptions. 

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Mr Doherty’s distinction generously offers Australians a convenient place to hide our prejudices in plain view.

Call me illegal provides an insider view of how successive Australian governments tailored language to manage the public’s anger.

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’. Australia’s asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.

We have (politicians and public alike) been behaving like avaricious, racist hypocrites; and have sought, for about forty years, to camouflage our insecurities with political blamestorming. Journalists and media pundits, who could have helped to pull down the propaganda and lies upon which our prejudices have built the current system of abuses, did little to mitigate the effects.

The people who pretend to lead us, having decided it was easier to manage our prejudices for their own benefit than to educate us, created ever-more absurd excesses of placation; until billions of dollars were spent on detaining a couple of thousand asylum seekers, and tens of millions of dollars thrown at other governments in our region so they would accept the small number of refugees who wanted to live with us.

Nineteen eighty-four needs to be revised for Australia: Big Brother has been watching… how you vote.

More information on refugees

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