13 March 2013

Protect us from what?

(Monday musings)
During the recent state election, we received a card in the mailbox that seemed to have nothing to do with the election itself. On one side a row of five small boats, suggesting a queue, carried labels, 501, 502 etc, and above them, in yellow on a black background were the words “Labor’s 500+ border protection failures.”

The other side of the card showed a mosaic of black and white photos on a black background with red borders and yellow captions blaring ”500+ illegal boats arrive”, “30,000 plus illegal arrivals”, “Detention centre riots”, “$20 billion dollar defence cuts” (the latter under a photo of a white flag). The banner heading was “Labor’s failing to protect Australia”. The unspoken message was loud and clear – asylum seekers are dangerous.

I picked it up to read the fine print, expecting to find that it had been produced by some far right Pauline Hanson sympathisers. I was shocked to find that it had been authorised by the Liberal party. Shocked? Yes, I was genuinely taken aback.

This post isn’t a plug for the Labor party. It is my protest against what I see as a sinister development in Australian politics. Everyone expects election material to be selective with the facts, to twist them and present them in  a way that casts doubt on the competence or honesty of the opposing parties.

But this card went a step further. It didn’t simply suggest that the current government is failing to deal with the issue of people seeking asylum. It also implied that those asylum seekers are a threat to Australia and the safety of Australians. The choice of words, the colours, the raised white flag all said “we need to protect ourselves from these people”. It demonised a group who have no political power, no say at all in the election.

It could be argued that the producers of the card were taking aim at people smugglers, not the asylum seekers themselves. “People smugglers winning” was one of the captions (under a picture of Julia Gillard with a surprised look on her face). Yet there was nothing to suggest any concern for the welfare of those taken up by people smugglers.

The “illegal arrivals” issue has been used in elections before. The idea that terrorists might sneak into Australia by passing themselves off as refugees has also been around for a long time. If anything its credence seems to have been waning. But the suggestion that all asylum seekers are dangerous or sinister is something new, at least among main-stream political groups.

The colours used on the card were no doubt meant to evoke feelings of danger, alarm, dread. They are colours that have been used on propaganda many times before. But to me they also signified the thinking behind the material - red for incitement of hatred, yellow for cowardice in using the plight of asylum seekers to gain political points, and black for the darkness that is creeping into public affairs. I’m still wondering what is the best way to counter it.

(For accurate information about all aspects of asylum seekers in Australia, the Parliament of Australia Department of Parliamentary Services has a useful publication, Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts? which can be downloaded as a pdf file.)

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