And I thought this part was going to be boring.
The nomenclature of immigration is in your face. ALP Senators Carr and Singh are asking why “illegal maritime arrivals” is now used by Customs and Immigration agencies. Senator Carr points out this term was not used prior by the bureaucracy. Martin Bowles says that “varying names have been used over many years”, such as irregular and unauthorised.
It is revealed that Minister Morrison has sent a letter to Secretary Bowles directing agencies to use the word ‘illegal’. This is obviously a term mired in politics, as opposed to practical legal implications. There is no offence committed by asylum seekers who enter Australia by boat, however by coming to Australia without the appropriate documentation, they are not complying with Australian law. However, this is not a criminal act. Senator Carr’s question about how many asylum seekers have been charged as being illegal goes unanswered as the answer is zero.
The ALP are somewhat successful at getting the department’s chief legal officer to say ‘irregular’ is “pretty much the same thing” as ‘illegal’. However the ALP are on very soft ground here. Minister Cash outlines the use of the word illegal by Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Smith over the past 6 years.
Cash can’t help herself though. She makes very valid points about the ALP having cake and eating it too but then goes on to link the use of language such as ‘illegal’ to stopping the boats, which is completely bogus. As an aside, the ALP should be jumping up and down whenever the Coalition claims they have stopped the boats by 75 per cent, as Minister Cash just did. It’s simply not true. As I outline here, its more likely the PNG policy is the major driving factor behind the slow down in boats arriving.
Language does matter about how the public view policy. But the issue for the ALP is that ever since establishing mandatory detention, it is very hard to argue on the nuance of asylum seeker policy. The Coalition have no qualms being tough, while many in the ALP do have such qualms. This is seen in the use of terms such as illegal. I’m not sure myself that the long road to changing the culture and public perception of asylum seekers has anything to do in a senate estimates committee room.