The language of asylum policy

Arnold Kling has a great short ebook called The Three Language of Politics. In this podcast, he outlines how language can frame politics and specific political positions on issues. Here he is discussing the U.S. immigration debate:

A progressive might think of the people who have crossed the border from Latin America as an oppressed group, and native white Americans who are hostile to the immigrants as oppressors. And so they would be favoring allowing these immigrants to come in.

For conservatives, I think that having a border, and a well-defined border, and a well-defined population is part of civilized values. They would worry that if you allow immigration that you might undermine that, and they would feel very strongly that people who have crossed the border illegally have, by definition, carried out an illegal act and therefore certainly ought not to be rewarded for it and perhaps ought to be punished for it.

Most importantly, Kling outlines this does not explain why people hold their opinions but how they will “be most comfortable expressing their points of view”.

Basically we talk past each other in this debate.

It struck me there are many parallels with the Australian asylum debate. Generally opponents of a policy such as offshore processing will see asylum seekers as being oppressed by the Australian government, the embodiment of Australian public opinion.

However supporters of offshore processing don’t think of themselves of being oppressors. Indeed, the exact opposite. The are upholding a different set of values, seeking to preserve the status quo via border management. “Illegal” behaviour cannot be rewarded.

You can see this difference in the language refugee advocates and government ministers use all too readily. This isn’t a conversation. The Greens and the Government will continue to talk past each other, each appealing to separate blocs of public opinion.

For a political party such as the ALP, with a combination of both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ world views, this means internal mechanisms need to be developed to work and recognise these differences. I see no meaningful progress on this which means the tension internal to the ALP on this issue will persist. The progressives (Anna Burke and Melissa Parke have both recently spoken out) will not persuade the conservatives, who in turn are unlikely to persuade the progressives.

This is one of the most difficult policy environments to work through. Different world views are likely at the very heart of this. Appeals to reason and justice for one person are completely different to another. But this does not mean we shouldn’t try. Finding a small amount of common ground could help lead to a more fruitful policy framework. For example, progressives may agree not every single person is being oppressed and conservatives may agree some punishments are unnecessary and unduly harsh. Even this won’t happen quickly, but is much more likely to succeed than big pushes for radical reform.

The rest of Kling’s podcast is excellent, as is his book which outlines the same topic. We have much to learn from each other but we need to be able to understand each other first. This would help to reduce the moral smugness of both sides as well as much of the ‘intolerance and incivility’ which wracks this public policy debate.

(Note: It is called the ‘three languages’ because he also discusses libertarianism however this does not play a meaningful role in Australian asylum policy so I left it out)

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