Word games won’t work to shift opinion on refugees

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection employs an army of spin doctors costing taxpayers more than $8 million a year.

And it is indisputable that the use and abuse of language has been important in shaping the public debate around refugees.

Howard demonised asylum seekers as “queue jumpers” and his infamous phrase “we will decide who comes to this country” turned a section of the public against refugees. Every Prime Minister since has portrayed people smugglers as “evil” and “inhuman” in order to demonise refugees.

In 2015, the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) commissioned a major research project, “To find a better way to talk about people seeking asylum… (and) to uncover and test the ways we can put forward the most compelling case for a more humane approach”.

Their target was convincing the “persuadables”—the 40-50 per cent of the population who can be won over.

To produce Words That Work, the ASRC hired Anat Shenker-Osorio (ASO Communications) and John Armitage (QDOS). Their approach follows the work of US based Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff, whose concept of “framing” has become a buzzword for NGOs the world over.

The ASRC is promoting the results nationally, employing staff in Brisbane and Sydney to implement them.

Some of their recommendations are things the refugee movement has been doing for a long time, like attempting to humanise the issue through the stories of individual refugees.

But their main claim is that we need to appeal to people on the basis of people’s supposed “shared values”, such as “family, freedom, and fairness”.

The QDOS website claims, “Smart campaigns rarely waste too much time countering good (sic) points on the other side. They ‘frame’ the debate around their own positives”.

The ASRC report’s contains graphs which claim that people respond better to values-based messages like “everyone just needs a safe place to live”, and that “most of us strive to treat others the way we’d want to be treated”.

The result of this is that ASRC’s CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis now argues against using facts and political arguments to try to convince people.

We should no longer say “it’s not illegal to seek asylum”, or “refugees aren’t queue jumpers”, because this supposedly “unintentionally reinforces the negative dominant narrative”.

However, we cannot duck the difficult questions like deaths at sea or the talk of people smuggling networks in the hope they will go away. Every time the government (or its stooges like Jim Molan) open their mouths, they make a pitch in terms of “values”, claiming their policies save lives and ensuring people don’t jump the queue. We have to deal with these arguments head on and show why they are wrong.

Confronting the hard arguments can work. One of the most powerful and effective counters to the government’s messaging in recent years has been Robin de Crespigny’s book, The People Smuggler, and her preparedness to take Ali Jenabi’s moving story to towns and cities across Australia.


The ASRC also claims that a trial of its values-based campaigning in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Higgins during the election proves it is effective. But this extremely wealthy and middle class audience is not representative of most Australians. These are not the people in Dutton and Turnbull’s sights when they spout their poison about refugees threatening jobs and crowding out government services.

The racism against refugees has been designed to play on real fears about economic insecurity amongst working class people. To convince a working class audience, the movement needs political arguments which highlight how the government is using refugees as scapegoats, and pointing out who is responsible for cuts to jobs and services.

The campaign for refugee rights has changed minds before. Government spin can only temporarily hide the brutality of its policies. The mass movement under Howard undermined his words of hate and division, without professional marketing gurus.

Likewise, in 2016, the mass #LetThemStay campaign meant that despite the language deployed by both major parties in support of offshore detention, none of the 267 people have been returned to Manus or Nauru. Attempts by Dutton and Turnbull to ramp up anti-refugee rhetoric during the election campaign largely failed.

Transforming public opinion about refugees is important, but it’s not enough to force lasting change. Politicians can ignore public opinion when it suits them—take the issues of public transport, same-sex marriage, and renewable energy.

We do need to shift the “persuadables”. However, it remains vitally important that we turn the maximum number of people from refugee supporters into grassroots refugee campaigners. Increasing the reach of public, grassroots demonstrations can take refugee politics into people’s everyday lives: in the street, at work, at sport, at school.

By Mark Goudkamp


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