Abbott's Liberals and the 'illegal boats' election campaign
Tony Abbott's aggressive 'Labor's illegal boats' campaign was a brazen attempt to redefine asylum seekers as 'illegals' throughout his time in opposition - but activists successfully undermined his 'flagship' in Perth
CARTOON: Thanks to Fiona Katauskas and New Matilda
Between 1999 and 2005, Former Prime Minister John Howard and his immigration minister Philip Ruddock had started the project for Tony Abbott's Liberals.
Together - and keenly assisted by Max Moore-Wilton in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, and equally keenly by the immigration department, Howard and Ruddock mastered the dark political art of changing the national asylum seeker discourse until it neatly fitted their party-political purpose.
Philip Ruddock had always held the opinion that nobody, neither by air nor by boat, has the right to enter Australia for the sake of seeking or claiming asylum. During 1999 debate of 'people smuggling' legislation, the shift became permanent - boats carrying asylum seekers or "illicit migrants" alike were called "illegal vessels", and passengers were "illegal" or "unlawful" entrants, while Ruddock actively promoted the use of the term "unlawful non-citizen" (see the in-depth study here).
John Howard might have been rather covert, secretive or - as some would call it - conniving and manipulative about pushing what was soon to become established conservative asylum seeker discourse, but Tony Abbott, the boxer and street fighter, showed no such care or tact. Abbott's brazen aggressive baiting tactics aimed at Gillard and Rudd Labor represented a new and unsavoury parliamentary descent into slanging matches about boats and boat arrivals under Labor.
In Western Australia, Abbott's Liberals took the creative expression to new heights. They constructed a giant Billboard parked on a trailer, displaying the number of boats that had arrived under Labor, brazenly calling them "Labor's Illegal Boats".
As we learnt during the course of unfolding events during April and May 2013, the good WA Liberals usually parked trailer and billboard in a shed behind the office of the Member for Stirling, Michael Keenan, on Wanneroo Road in Tuart Hill, one of Perth's suburbs.
For the Liberals' campaign everything was in place and it was 'situation normal' early on the Monday morning of April 22, 2013. Then the ABC 720 Mornings presenter Geoff Hutchinson noted at 8:30am that Tony Abbott's press conference at the Sunderland Street intersection at ten o'clock that morning, in front of the billboard, would be covered by the ABC.
We were listening at the Project SafeCom office, and within minutes we woke up a renowned Sydney activist with more than 12 years experience who happened to be in Perth. We guided him to the press conference with the help of Facebook and text messages - and his heckling of Tony Abbott ("They're not illegal - you've lied. You know it's a lie.") became the dominant news theme.
When we woke up the next morning, some gentle souls had adjusted the billboard message with some cans of spraypaint and black markers - providing the news cycle with a new twist to the story.
The real fun was yet to start though. When the news spread on Twitter and Facebook, it took just minutes before "adjusted images" targeting Tony Abbott's Liberals started to appear. Within 48 hours, many dozens of images were posted online around the country. There were some good laughs to be had at the expense of Abbott's Liberal conservatives.
While the WA Liberals vowed to 'restore' the billboard as soon as two days after the incident, it was never seen or heard of again. It was not seen during the immediate lead-up to the September 2013 election. The initiative had proved too costly because of the flak it had generated. Thanks to some fierce activists!
What's on this page
This page brings together the news and opinion surrounding the story of Tony Abbott's Liberal Billboard campaign. And, to continue the fun, we've posted the best of the 'adjusted billboard' images found on social networking sites below, amongst the news items. Enjoy!
30 May 2004: Catching Illegals Down-Under Part Two - This is the second page about the use of the term "illegals" in the Australian print press. In May 2004 a complaint was lodged by refugee advocates against the Sydney Morning Herald's use of the word "illegals" in a headline on April 30. This page is about that complaint.
14 January 2004: Catching Illegals Down-Under Part One - A new, and seriously important opportunity has developed to "nail down" journalists and writers in Australia who engage in forms of distorting the facts in relation to refugees and asylum seekers.
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
Advocates condemn Abbott's anti-refugee Billboard & converge on Perth
Refugee advocates have condemned Tony Abbott's anti-refugee bill-board unveiled in Perth this (Monday) afternoon.
"Tony Abbott continues to peddle myths and misinformation about asylum seekers. His bill-board says refers to illegal boats but asylum boats are not illegal. Abbott well-knows that it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia but he would rather scare-monger than tell the truth," said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.
"The Coalition is doing all it can to use asylum seekers to win the Federal election. He is committed to wasting even more millions of dollars on detention centres and off-shore processing, than the Labor government. Those millions would be better spent on providing the money needed for education, health and boosting the Newstart allowance.
"But Labor and Liberal are involved in a race to shamelessly buy votes at the expense of the truth and the expense of asylum seekers lives," said Rintoul.
Two refugee supporters challenged Abbott at his billboard launch; for comment contact Mark Goudkamp, 0422 078 376. Abbott deflected questions about whether an Abbott government would use Curtin to imprison children, as the Labor government is proposing.
"Besides being completely phoney, Tony Abbott's mantra of 'stop the boats' is just a nother version of the Coalition's election policy of vilifying asylum seekers," said Mark Goudkamp.
Meanwhile, hundreds of refugee supporters will begin to converge on Perth from Anzac Day this week. A program of protests in the city and two-days action outside the Yonga Hill detention centre, south of Perth, will highlight the outstanding detention issues.
"In particular, we will be protesting to free the refugees and for the right to process and the right to work for asylum seekers who have arrived after 13 August 2012. Around 14,000 asylum seekers who have arrived since 13 August are living in the community without being processed and without the right to work.
"It is a fundamental denial of human rights on both counts. The Labor government is punishing people for daring to seek asylum. It is a shockingly short-sighted policy. Over ninety per cent of these will be found to be refugees and will become Australian citizens, but Labor is leaving them in limbo and distressed conditions," said Ian Rintoul.
For more information contact Ian Rintoul, or Mark Goudkamp (in Perth)
Tony Abbott heckled in Perth about 'illegal' arrivals
AAP / PerthNow
Refugee rights advocates have heckled Tony Abbott as he held a media conference in Perth denouncing the federal government's track record with asylum seekers.
The opposition leader was admonished by a school teacher, Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Mark Goudkamp, over his use of the term 'illegal" arrivals.
Asked if the coalition would use Curtin Detention Centre in WA's north to house families of asylum seekers - a plan hatched by the federal government according to West Kimberley shire president Elsia Archer - Mr Abbott referred to illegal arrivals and was heckled.
"They're not illegal - you've lied. You know it's a lie," Mr Goudkamp interjected.
Mr Abbott pushed ahead, saying the Liberal party's plan to stop asylum seeker boats from attempting to get to Australia meant it would avoid the problem of deciding where to detain new arrivals.
"It's very difficult to avoid having women and children in some form of detention if you've got illegal arrivals on this scale," Mr Abbott said.
Mr Goudkamp spoke with the Liberal leader afterwards, saying Australia was "putting up the fortress".
"If you want to do something about the boat arrivals, you need to actually look at the reasons why people are leaving in the first place and clearly there are strong reasons," Mr Goudkamp said.
Mr Abbott said the coalition maintained its policy of reintroducing temporary protection visas, regional offshore processing in places like Nauru and turning boats back.
He insisted he could talk Indonesia around into accepting boats.
"We have much better relations with Indonesia, we had good relations with Indonesia before, we can have it again under a coalition government," he said.
Activists disrupt Abbott's 'illegal boats' tally
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was confronted by a pair of refugee activists in West Perth this morning after he unveiled a new Liberal Party billboard tallying the number of suspected asylum seeker boat arrivals on Federal Labor's watch.
The billboard on Sutherland Street has long been used by the Liberals to promote various candidates but with the Federal election less than five months away, party strategists have flicked the switch to the politically contentious asylum seeker issue.
The billboard reprises a previous mobile billboard the Liberals had deployed three years ago. Mr Abbott, flanked by shadow justice, customs and border protection minister Michael Keenan and the Liberals' Federal candidate for Perth Darryl Moore, this morning updated the tally of what the billboard describes as "illegal boats" arriving in Australian waters from 112 to 639 in a stage-managed picture opportunity.
A press conference following the picture opportunity was briefly interrupted by Mark Goudkamp, a Sydney schoolteacher and activist for the Refugee Action Coalition, who objected to Mr Abbott's description of the "illegal arrival problem".
"They're not illegal that's a lie. You know it's a lie," Mr Goudkamp interjected.
Mr Abbott replied: "You can say your piece in a sec. Let me say my piece and then you can say yours, sir."
Mr Abbott pledged to restore temporary protection visas, "rigorous offshore processing in places like Nauru", a preparedness to turn boats back "where it is safe to do so" and much better relations with Indonesia.
"It doesn't matter what this Government says, the situation is just getting worse and worse and worse," Mr Abbott told reporters.
"As with everything this Government does, they make a bad situation worse."
Mr Abbott said Labor's failure to staunch the flow of boats was not just a "border protection problem" but also a problem for the Federal Budget.
"We've certainly got a big budgetary problem ... because this is a Government which can't keep its spending under control," Mr Abbott said.
"One way to get expenditure under control is to stop the boats because that's $6.5 billion of unnecessary spending because this Government wasn't able to leave well enough alone."
Asked about WA's argument for a greater slice of the national GST pool, which Mr Abbott described as "small beer" at the weekend despite Premier Colin Barnett nominating it as the no.1 challenge facing State finances, Mr Abbott said it was an issue for the States.
"Look, I applaud the way Premier Barnett has stood up for Western Australia, I do, I do.
"And I'm very confident that an incoming coalition government can do the right thing by the people of WA by abolishing the carbon tax, abolishing the mining tax (and) by ... swiftly restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
"This will massively improve the economy of WA."
But of the GST argument, he said: "This is an issue for the States."
"I am very keen to see it resolve in the national interest, but it won't be resolved in the national interest if we victimise South Australia and Tasmania. Now I'm very happy to see what the big four States come up with but what I would never want to see is anything that disadvantages South Australia or Tasmania."
Abbott sparks ire with talk of 'illegals'
Tony Abbott's office has defended his continued use of the word "illegal" when describing the arrival of asylum seeker boats by referring to the UN Refugee Convention.
But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Canberra, says it does not use the word "illegal", and nor does it encourage people to use the word to describe asylum boats.
Mr Abbott on Monday re-launched the Coalition's famed "illegal boats" billboards in Perth, saying a Coalition government would "stop the boats" arriving. Border protection spokesman Michael Keenan said 505 asylum seeker boats had arrived under Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership of Labor.
The billboards read: "How many illegal boats have arrived since Labor took over? 639 illegal boats. Labor has lost control of Australia's borders".
Mr Abbott was interrupted during his address to reporters in Perth by a passerby, who took exception to Mr Abbott's description of asylum seekers arriving in boats as ''illegal''. ''It's not illegal, that's a lie,'' the man interjected. ''You know it's a lie.''
Undeterred, Mr Abbott went on.''If you've got the problem that this government has created, you are obviously going to have a problem of what to do with people who come by boat, women and children who come by boat. Now, you can't avoid detention of women and children when you've got the border protection failures of this government.''
The online reaction was swift, with a petition launched calling on Mr Abbott to apologise for his use of the word, and Twitter users outraged at the use of the term. Refugee advocates accused the opposition of fear-mongering.
But Mr Abbott's office referred to Article 31 of the UN Convention to defend the opposition's continued use of the word "illegal". The article states: "the Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ...enter or are present in their territory without authorisation, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence".
A spokesman for the UNHCR said he could not comment on domestic politics, but said: "The term 'illegal' is not one that UNHCR uses, or encourages the use of, in relation to refugees or asylum-seekers.
"Both the Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledge that, in exercising the basic human right of seeking international protection, asylum-seekers are often forced to arrive at, or enter, a territory in an irregular or illegal manner. Thus the Refugee Convention explicitly notes that penalties should not be imposed on refugees on account of their illegal entry or presence in a territory."
But Mr Abbott is by no means the only politician to use the term "illegal" when referring to boat people.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: "We have always said that our approach to people smuggling, to illegal immigration, to asylum seekers, will be tough, hardline, but humane."
In another speech, he said: "I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hardline approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity, and I make no apology whatsoever having a hardline and humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers. That's the balance the Australian community expects of us."
In 2010, in a speech to the Lowy Institute accusing the opposition of using inflammatory language about asylum seekers, Ms Gillard said "the Australian Federal Police, working with our regional neighbours, have prevented more than 5000 foreign nationals coming to our shores illegally".
Simon Crean, asked whether he endorsed Mr Rudd's comments that people arriving on boats were "illegal immigrants", said: "Well, some of them may be but in the main they're refugees."
Vandals deface Liberal Party boats billboard
ABC News Online
Vandals have defaced a Liberal Party billboard in Perth just hours after it was unveiled by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
The billboard claimed more than 600 "illegal" asylum seeker boats have arrived in Australia since the Labor Party won government.
The number has since been whited out and replaced with a zero.
Also spraypainted on the billboard were the words: "No crime to seek asylum."
Mr Abbott addressed the vandalism today during a planned visit to Geraldton in the state's mid-west.
"I understand the billboard has now been vandalised," he said.
"Well my message to the vandals is you can vandalise a billboard but you can't hide the facts.
"The facts are that this Government has totally, utterly, comprehensively and in the end disgracefully failed on border protection."
The Opposition Leader was in Geraldton to discuss border protection with residents.
A boat carrying more than 60 asylum seekers sailed undetected into the town's harbour earlier this month.
More than two-thirds of the group have since been sent home and the rest are being processed on Christmas Island.
Vandals target Abbott's 'illegal' boats ad
AAP / News.com.au
A Liberal Party billboard in Perth tallying the number of "illegal" asylum seeker boat arrivals under the Gillard government has been vandalised.
The billboard, the centrepiece of a Tony Abbott publicity stunt on Monday, originally showed the number of boats as 641.
By Tuesday, that figure had been blanked out and replaced with a zero.
"No crime to seek asylum," was twice daubed beneath.
In Geraldton on Tuesday, Mr Abbott responded by saying: "You can vandalise a billboard but you can't change the facts."
Mr Abbott said it took only one person to vandalise a billboard.
"But you need a strong and effective government to protect our borders," he told reporters.
"That's what we haven't got now."
He was confronted by a refugee rights advocate during the media conference on Monday, Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Mark Goudkamp, over his use of the term "illegal" arrivals.
"Three years ago, at that stage, the then-mobile billboard recorded that there had been 112 boats and just over 5000 illegal arrivals by boat," Mr Abbott said.
"Now, there has been 641 illegal boats and there have been more than 38,000 arrivals by boat."
Mr Goudkamp said Australia was "putting up the fortress" to people fleeing desperate situations in their home countries, and that it was legal to seek asylum.
Tony Abbott's 'illegal boats' billboard vandalised
LESS than 24 hours after it was erected, political activists have vandalised Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's controversial "illegal boats" billboard in West Perth.
Mr Abbott was heckled by refugee advocates yesterday as he held a press conference in front of the sign at the intersection of Roe and Sutherland streets, denouncing the federal government's asylum seeker arrivals record.
Overnight, the sign's tally of 639 boat arrivals was whited out and replaced with a lone zero and the words "no crime to seek asylum" were spray painted over the sentence "Labor has lost control of Australia's borders."
Mr Abbott's office has been contacted for comment.
Libs billboard defaced again
The Liberal Party's Sutherland Street billboard has been vandalised again.
The billboard in West Perth was defaced last week less than 24 hours after Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott launched an "illegal boats" counter that attracted nationwide headlines.
Protesters reset the counter from 641 to zero and spray-painted the words "no crime to seek asylum" over it.
The billboard vandalism last week prompted the party to cover it with a new image advertising Stirling MP and shadow justice and customs and border protection minister Michael Keenan and Liberal candidate for the Federal seat of Perth Darryl Moore.
Yesterday, images of the two men's faces on the billboard had been slashed.
Liberal Party State director Ben Morton said he was still trying to decide what to do about the latest attack.
Arsonists target federal MP's office in Perth
ABC News Online
Arsonists have targeted the electorate office of the federal member for Stirling, Michael Keenan.
Firefighters were called to the office in the Perth suburb of Tuart Hill about 8:30 pm last night and found a shed at the back of the building on fire. The blaze also damaged a campaign van. The suspicious fire is estimated to have caused more than $50,000 damage. It comes about a fortnight after vandals targetted a billboard unveiled by Mr Keenan and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Mr Keenan says the incident is concerning. "Look. we really don't know much about it at the moment so the police are looking into it and obviously that's their job," he said. "I mean I'm pretty disappointed and we'd prefer that it hadn't happened but I just don't have any further details at this stage."
Mr Keenan says he does not know whether the billboard incident and the shed fire are linked. "Completely impossible for me to make any linkages at all," he said. "I don't know anything more than the fact that there was a fire and obviously it's not my job to investigate that, that will be the job of the police."
Abbott seeks asylum in billboard
TONY Abbott yesterday unveiled a billboard at a busy Perth intersection showing the number of "illegal" boat arrivals since Labor took power.
The move was a shot in his campaign to press the asylum-seeker issue in Western Australia and dislodge the ALP's three remaining federal MPs in the state.
The Opposition Leader will today fly to the regional port of Geraldton, 400km north of Perth, where a group of 66 Sri Lankans arrived earlier this month after a 44-day ocean journey. The billboard site has long been used by the WA Liberal Party to promote Coalition justice spokesman Michael Keenan and its other state and federal candidates.
Yesterday it was turned into a media prop for Mr Abbott's visit and will until Thursday update each new boat arrival.
Yesterday's unveiling came as an Indonesian MP and member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's ruling coalition slammed Mr Abbott's recommitment to using the navy to turn asylum-seeker boats around.
Mahfudz Siddiq, head of Indonesia's parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, said Mr Abbott's comments demonstrated he "doesn't understand the problem . . . This kind of opinion disrespects the talks we have already had, which have been very productive.
"With wrong perception, even Indonesia could pull out from these co-operative agreements regarding people-smuggling.
"I'm not saying Australia is not troubled and burdened by people-smuggling cases, but Indonesia is suffering the same thing. Indonesia is not their (asylum-seekers') destination," Mr Mahfudz said.
Libs to restore boat billboard
THE Liberal Party has promised to resurrect its Perth billboard showing the number of asylum boats to have arrived since the federal Labor government took power after it was defaced by activists challenging the assertion the arrivals are unlawful.
Tony Abbott unveiled the billboard on Monday morning showing more than 600 "illegal boats" had arrived since 2007.
But less than 24 hours later, that figure had been painted over and a zero drawn on instead, with "No crime to seek asylum" written below.
The Opposition Leader was yesterday in the mid-west town of Geraldton, 400km north of Perth, to discuss border security. A boat carrying 66 Sri Lankans cruised undetected into the busy harbour earlier this month.
Mr Abbott said his message to the vandals was "you can vandalise a billboard but you can't hide the facts".
"And the facts are that this government has totally, utterly, comprehensively and in the end disgracefully failed on border protection because there is no higher priority for a government than the border security of our country."
The billboard was first revealed by Mr Abbott almost three years ago as a mobile poster on the back of a truck, which was locked up each night.
West Australian Liberal Party director Ben Morton said if the $3000 billboard could not be cleaned, it may again be put on a truck and made secure.
Mr Abbott spoke with a group of locals at a cafe where people had watched the Sri Lankan boat pull up 100m offshore.
Use of term 'illegal' is ignorant or mischievous
While the Coalition may have hoped to score political points with the reappearance of its "illegal boats" billboard this week, it has shone a spotlight on its feeble grasp of international law. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is wrong to say that the Refugee Convention says asylum seekers are "illegal".
It is true that the treaty uses the term "illegal", but the reason for doing so is to recognise that no matter what domestic law says, asylum seekers are not illegal under international law. By ratifying the Refugee Convention, governments agree precisely not to treat asylum seekers as illegal.
Under international law, people have a right to seek asylum from persecution and other serious human rights abuses. In turn, governments have an obligation not to send them to territories where they face a real chance of harm.
Being an asylum seeker gives you a legitimate excuse for not having a visa under Australian law. In fact, the very provision of the Refugee Convention that Tony Abbott relies upon, article 31, goes on to say that governments must not penalise asylum seekers for entering without a visa.
This is because the drafters of the Refugee Convention recognised that the very nature of refugee flight may mean that people arrive without travel documents. For instance, a government that persecutes you is hardly going to give you a passport to leave, and you will probably be too scared to apply for one.
Civilians fleeing war crimes in Syria are hardly going to be given a passport by President Assad's officials.
You cannot apply for a refugee visa before you leave a country because a "refugee" is, by definition, someone outside their country. Even if you cross a border, Australian embassies abroad cannot issue refugee visas to those on the move such as people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further, it is highly unlikely that refugees will be able to get a visa of any other kind, such as a tourist or work visa.
For example, an Iraqi who applies to an Australian embassy for such a visa will likely be screened out, precisely because of the assumption that they will claim asylum on arrival in Australia. It is a catch-22.
For these reasons, the Refugee Convention prohibits countries from imposing penalties on asylum seekers who enter without a passport or visa. Indeed, in some cases arrival without documentation may in fact help to demonstrate that a refugee claim is compelling and credible.
Article 31 is one of the most fundamental elements of the Refugee Convention precisely because it underscores the right of people in distress to seek protection even if their actions constitute a breach of a country's domestic immigration laws.
Indeed, even the two international treaties on human trafficking and smuggling both make clear that being a victim of trafficking or smuggling must not negatively affect a person's right to claim asylum and receive protection.
The opposition's use of the term "illegal" is designed to tarnish people's perceptions about the legitimacy of asylum seekers' claims. It is language that dehumanises and criminalises. Invoking it is either ignorant or deliberately mischievous, since the act of seeking asylum is not a crime, but the right of every individual.
Professor Jane McAdam is scientia professor of law at the University of New South Wales.
Press Conference "No one is illegal!" in front of Liberal Billboard
No one is illegal! - Refugee activists to again target Liberal billboard prior to Northam weekend protests
At 8.30am tomorrow (Friday) morning, refugee activists will again stress that 'No one is illegal' at the site of the now infamous Liberal billboard in West Perth.
"Abbott's dishonest and offensive billboard was taken down after it was corrected by graffiti artists. However, it now features Michael Keenan and Darryl Moore, who happily posed with Tony Abbott on Monday morning", said Mark Goudkamp from the Refugee Action Coalition who confronted Tony Abbott on at his press conference.
"Along with Abbott, shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection Michael Keenan has been utterly unrepentant about the Liberals' use of the word 'illegal', despite being widely criticised, including by the Press Council, for doing so", added Goudkamp.
After this peak-hour action, the protesters will join other activists from around the country outside the East Perth train station at 10am to board buses to Northam, where a series of protest actions will occur over the Anzac weekend. The main two main public events outside Northam's Yongah Hill detention centre are a candlelight vigil starting at 6pm on Friday 26th April with Amnesty International, and a protest with activists and ex-detainee speakers at 1pm on Saturday 27th.
"Incidences of self-harm in detention, like those yesterday at MITA in Melbourne remain all too common. By going to Northam, we aim to give hope to those locked up inside that there are many people in Australia who support their right to freedom.
"Disgracefully, Serco has banned all visits to detainees from today for four day, even before the convergence has commenced", said Victoria Iverson-Martin from the Refugee Rights Action Network who regularly visits Hazara, Iranian and Tamil detainees at the centre.
"Like previous refugee convergences, Northam is about sending a message to the Australian public that the bipartisan support for mandatory detention, offshore processing, and the indefinite detention of the ASIO negative refugees has to end.
"And in light of the 7.30 Reports revelations of the abduction and torture of a Tamil migrant who went back to visit his family in Sri Lanka, the government's screening out of Tamil asylum seekers must be halted immediately. Unfortunately, a more humane approach to asylum seekers and refugees is unlikely to come from our current political leaders", said Ian Rintoul of RAC.
For comment or information, contact: Mark Goudkamp , Victoria Martin-Iverson or Ian Rintoul.
Abbott heckler leads WA refugee protests
AAP / news.com.au
The potester who heckled Opposition Leader Tony Abbott over his reference to "illegal" boat arrivals is leading a three-day campaign calling for refugee rights.
The protests started in peak-hour traffic on Friday morning in front of the Liberal Party billboard in West Perth that the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) vandalised earlier this week.
The billboard, the centrepiece of a publicity stunt by Mr Abbott on Monday, originally showed the number of boats that had arrived under the Gillard government's watch as 641, but within hours, that figure had been blanked out and replaced with a zero, with the words "no crime to seek asylum" daubed beneath.
Mark Goudkamp, who heckled Mr Abbott at a press conference to unveil the billboard, on Friday said the use of the word "illegal" was dishonest and offensive, and had been simply corrected by graffiti artists.
Mr Abbott and the opposition's customs and border protection spokesman Michael Keenan had both been "utterly unrepentant" in using the word, despite widespread criticism, including by the Press Council, Mr Goudkamp said.
He and fellow activists said they would protest later on Friday and over the weekend outside the Yongah Hill Detention Centre at Northam, some 90km east of Perth, where asylum seekers are being detained.
Ex-detainees will address the crowd on Saturday.
RAC said the facility's operator Serco had banned all visits during the protests.
Can A Human Be Illegal?
A number of US media outlets have stopped using the term 'illegal immigrant' to avoid bias -- but can journos avoid taking sides in a debate about bias? What's really at stake, asks Violeta Politoff
A month ago the Associated Press and USA Today announced they would no longer use the term "illegal immigrant" except as part of a direct quote or in relation to the action, illegal immigration. In Australia, the use of this terminology is a hot issue both politically and for the media. The Press Council's standards of practice in relation to the term state that:
"The legal status of people who have entered Australia by boat without a visa is complex and potentially confusing. Their entry is not legally authorised but is not a criminal offence... Depending on the specific context, therefore, terms such as "illegal immigrants" or "illegals" may constitute a breach of the Council's Standards of Practice on these grounds."
However the Press Council's directive speaks only to coverage of those arriving by boat (as seeking asylum is not illegal), and the term continues to be used to describe undocumented immigrants in Australian news reporting. Last week The New York Times announced changes to its policy on the use of the term. What's interesting about The New York Times' style change is that it doesn't really regulate the term's use at all:
"Illegal immigrant may be used to describe someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorisation. But be aware that in the debate over immigration, some people view it as loaded or offensive. Without taking sides or resorting to euphemism, consider alternatives when appropriate..."
According to the editor, Philip B. Corbett, there are issues with some of the possible alternatives:
"Unauthorised is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone. Undocumented is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be used with caution outside quotations."
But is "undocumented immigrant" really a euphemism? When you consider the fact that an individual human being cannot be illegal in and of themselves, wouldn't it seem that describing them as undocumented is a more appropriate term? Indeed, the term "illegal immigrant" has been described as dehumanising by immigration-rights advocates because it characterises a human being (rather than an action) as illegal.
So why then does The New York Times say that the phrase "undocumented immigrant" "should be used with caution outside quotations"? (Suggesting that the phrase "undocumented immigrant" requires as much caution as "illegal immigrant") Well, it seems the reason is that the phrase "undocumented immigrant" is considered to be "taking sides" -- the side of the "immigrants and their advocates" -- and is therefore perceived as biased. It is difficult to see how describing someone as "undocumented" could be as one-sided as describing them as "illegal". It seems that because immigration-rights advocates are viewed as having an agenda, and they use this phrase, the phrase itself becomes understood as biased.
This issue of how bias is interpreted by journalists has arisen in other important areas. For example, research on coverage of violence against women has found that journalists tend to view advocates as biased sources rather than as experts. It appears that there is some reluctance to use these sources in Australia too. VicHealth research found that only 6 per cent of (1349) articles covering instances of violence against women use a violence against women prevention advocate/expert/social worker as a source.
In a similar vein, research in the US has also found that attempts to remain impartial and balanced in the reporting of global warming has led to the over-reporting of climate change skeptics (who are at the margins of scientific debate on the issue). This results in the misrepresentation of the scientific grounding of anthropogenic global warming, its impacts, and need for action.
It seems that ideas of bias can themselves be biased, and therefore need to be questioned. In terms of the immigration debate, it's easy to become accustomed to terms like "illegal immigrant" or "boat person" when used repeatedly in the media and by influential, heavily quoted political leaders.
Tony Abbott, for example, recently claimed that 639 "illegal boats" had arrived in Australia since the Labor party took over. Clearly, his perspective is not an objective or unbiased one, but one which carries its own political agenda. The language used in these debates has an enormous impact on those being spoken about, and affects the tone of the public conversation. When it comes to reporting this issue, reluctance to consider an alternative to the term "illegal immigrant" means supporting a particular view -- a political perspective which benefits from characterising certain human beings (rather than their actions) as "illegal".
Violeta Politoff is a researcher at the Law School at The University of Melbourne. Her research on violence against women in the media is funded by VicHealth.
THEY. ARE. NOT. ILLEGAL.
Dante's nineth circle of Hell is full of those who demonise asylum seekers.
Forgive the religious allusion, but the politicians who call these poor souls 'illegals' are often the most pious.
Whatever happened to, "Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted" or, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"?
On Monday, Jesuit-educated Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stoked the fires of racial hatred by re-launching the Coalition's 'illegal boats' billboard.
This is dog whistle politics at its worst: semantic game-play at its best.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "All people have a fundamental human right to seek asylum from persecution".
But Mr. Abbott invokes Article 31: "The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ...present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence."
Calling every entry 'illegal' is deliberate ignorance: between 70 and 97 per cent of asylum seekers are found to be legitimate refugees.
The real illegals are people who overstay their visas, including thousands of British tourists.
But those lines won't be found on the Coalition's hymn sheet. Instead its strategy is lifted from the pages of Hitler's Mein Kampf and Machiavelli's The Prince: create fear about 'the other'.
The heroic Aussie battlers versus the villainous darkies, sponging off the system and taking our jobs. Suddenly, anyone from the Middle East is a terrorist.
While the current Coalition leader follows in the footsteps of John Howard, bigotry is not exclusively the domain of the Right.
The seeds of the White Australia Policy were sown in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 under the Barton government, formed by the Protectionist Party and the ALP.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, "We have always said that our approach to people smuggling, to illegal immigration, to asylum seekers, will be tough, hardline".
This from a man who goes to church every Sunday; who worships Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who dedicated his life to working for the oppressed.
Oh, the hypocrisy.
Speaking of which, contrast the shadow customs minister Michael Keenan who stood proudly in front of the 'illegals' billboard, to the one who cried in parliament about the victims of the 2010 Christmas Island boat tragedy.
639 crocodile tears.
Two and a half years really is a long time in politics.
However, others in the Liberal Party are dismayed at the Phoenix-like return of Howard government policies.
Last year, backbencher Judi Moylan (pictured right) urged the public to "stand up" to the "rubbish rhetoric" of her leader over asylum seekers.
"We should not talk about queue jumpers, we should certainly not talk about illegals. They want to work and be part of our society," she said.
This year her colleague, Russell Broadbent, accused the party of vilification after immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, called for "behaviour protocols" for those released into the community.
Because those dirty Arabs don't know how to behave in polite society. Is that something you learned at Sunday School, Scott?
It's not just about asylum seekers.
Mr. Morrison routinely uses the 'big Australia' debate to evoke images of boat people swamping our shores. This defies demography.
As we reach 23 million, 60% of our population growth is through migration (predominately skilled), 7% humanitarian (mostly acquired overseas), and 1.2% Special Humanitarian Program visas, which include asylum seekers.
Far from a tsunami, it's barely a trickle.
Still, the Libs are focusing on more important matters -- like hunting down the illegals who defaced their billboard.
The billboard defaced with the words "no crime to seek asylum". Image via ABC.
On Tuesday, someone reset the counter to zero and daubed, "no crime to seek asylum, sincerely yours". The billboard was papered over the next day.
This is not a case of simple semantics. The use of this word "illegal" could incite violence against already marginalised, desperate and persecuted people.
It reminds me of an apocryphal story from long ago about a man who was persecuted, then crucified.
Perhaps those who believe in this tale should show kindness towards their fellow man.
'Illegals' and the erosion of empathy
Repetition of a simple phrase like 'illegal boats' influences the way you think about a subject even if it's wrong, former political advisor and author Don Watson says.
SBS News Analysis
Politicians from both Labor and the Coalition have referred to asylum seekers as "illegals" before.
Every time "illegal" is used in reference to asylum seekers, refugee advocates, lawyers, immigration experts and academics are quick to dispute it, pointing out that it is legal to seek asylum. Even the Refugee Council of Australia and the UN said it's wrong to use the word "illegal" to describe asylum seekers.
The confusion centres around the interpretation -- or misinterpretation -- of Article 31 of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
However, once the discussion reaches the level of conventions, articles and legal nuances, the most simplistic message -- 'illegals are coming to Australian shores' -- is already in the memory of the public.
According to Don Watson, former political speechwriter and advisor, and author of several books including Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, politicians continue to use a word they know is incorrect - propelling much disinformation - to drill the message into people's minds.
Mr Watson says repeated use of a simple message controls the way people think about a subject, he told SBS.
Political language has become the same as management speak, and "what management wants to do is to get everybody think the same thoughts," said Mr Watson.
"If you wanted to disenfranchise refugees, and leave the public thinking they have no rights, then call them 'illegal' over and over again," he said.
"The opportunity is there, and politicians will take the opportunity. Any more complex argument will only cloud the message."
On April 22, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott used the phrase "illegal boats" on a billboard, tweeting a photograph of himself and shadow minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection Michael Keenan, standing in front of it.
There was a backlash, and the next day Mr Abbott tweeted again, but using the word "unauthorised". It was not the first time Mr Abbott used the term, and it was not the first time he was criticised for it.
Mr Keenan has not backed down from the term. On April 26 Mr Keenan's website published a media release about "the arrival of another two illegal boats." Shadow minster for Immigration and Citizenship Scott Morrison released similar statements at the same time, prolonging the life of the Coalition's controversial and disputed message.
"Most people don't have time or can't be bothered making the time to inform themselves better so they will live on [those] messages," said Mr Watson.
"It's fairly easy to get away with, and it seems to politicians to be necessary. Both sides have been equally guilty. Labor has been horrendously on message now for 15 years."
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have used the phrase before. Prime Minister Julia Gillard addressed the Lowy Institute in 201 on "foreign nationals coming to our shore illegally."
Labor heavyweights have also spoken of "illegal immigrants" in various contexts.
"I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hardline approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity, and I make no apology whatsoever having a hardline and humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers." (Kevin Rudd, 2009).
"There are different legal basis and status for those people who arrive by boat - the illegal or unlawful maritime arrivals." (Stephen Smith, 2010)
"QUESTION: Minister, can I just ask you - sorry - do you endorse Kevin Rudd's comments that people arriving on boats are illegal immigrants?
"Australia is a good hearted-country, but we cannot afford to be an easy target for the people-smugglers - who are the real villains in this issue, not the illegal immigrants." (Kim Beazley 2001)
It's an irresistible temptation for politicians to simplify and distort by constantly being on message said Mr Watson, and its prevalence is a symptom of the pressure on politicians to fill an expanded news cycle.
"[Politicians] fill it with can't and clichés and often with prejudice, with tendentious phrases that are designed to fill the public's mind and not leave room for anything else."
"Illegal entries", "stop the boats", "jumping the queue". They are all prejudiced clichés but they remain prominent in the discourse on asylum seekers.
"If the first thing that enters your head is a cliché or some prejudice or some line that has been drummed into you, you can guarantee there's no room for anything else until you get that cliché out. So if you're constantly being told that these people are 'illegals', then that will do for your thinking about refugees."
It also helps keep any kind of empathy at bay, so people don't have to imagine if it were their family in the situation of an asylum seeker.
"You don't want that. You actually want these people to think 'illegals.' And then you don't have to think anything more."
Mr Watson says the political language of today has borrowed a lot from the language of corporate management, "which has this great capacity for saying nothing while appearing to say something.
"So the political landscape has become more and more like a PowerPoint presentation, without any real sentences, without any sign of spontaneous thought or any kind of interaction between the governed and the governors, and more like a series of slides with bullet points."
This management language has spread through public services, said Mr Watson, and it's only natural that politics has picked it up.
"[Politics] has as much need to limit people's thinking as management does. Because in the end you want them to only think the message," he said.
"They message you, they don't speak to you. It's insulting, I think, to anyone who wants to think about it. It's also immensely frustrating, and it echoes perfectly what people feel when consultants come to their communities, or management types come to their communities."
"It drives people mad but they overcome it by not reading what comes in the post or not listening to anyone. In a way it dulls the political mind, it leaves us all in a semi coma."
"You can ignore anything if you don't know about it."
'illegals' - where our leaders stand
The issue may come up again between now and the September election. So where specifically do those in charge stand?
SBS contacted leaders on both sides of politics to dissect the controversy surrounding this one powerful term.
Variations on the same questions were asked:
SBS contacted the offices of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Brendan O'Connor, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Scott Morrison, and Shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection Michael Keenan.
None would specifically answer whether they agreed with the Refugee Council of Australia, with Mr Abbott's media advisor saying the Council's statements are a matter for it.
Mr O'Connor's office referred all questions to an answer given to radio host John Laws a few days prior.
John Laws: Okay. And this expression 'illegal immigrants' has got to go because it is not illegal to claim asylum, is it?
Brendan O'Connor: Yeah. No, it's not, it's not. And we will return people that are not but it is inappropriate to use that term. In fact the Press Council has already called Mr Abbott up on that.
Prime Minister Gillard's office referred SBS to Mr O'Connor's statements, and the office of Mr Keenan -- who uses the term liberally when discussing asylum seekers -- referred to Mr Abbott's.
Mr Morrison's did not respond by deadline.
When questioned by SBS on the legal or political advice behind choosing to use the word "illegal" on the April 22 billboard, Mr Abbot's media advisor referred SBS to a statement made at a People's Forum in Geelong, which includes the following statement:
"And on the vexed question of are we entitled to call them illegal arrivals by boat? Article 31 of the UN convention specifically refers to people who arrive illegally."
But no context of just how Article 31 uses the word is given.
When asked if Mr Abbott was concerned that referencing the Article without explaining the context may confuse Australians or inflame negative sentiment towards asylum seekers, SBS was given a list of Labor politicians who had also used the word "illegal" in the past, and then was told the Geelong statement "did explain the context."
The changing language of asylum-seeker policy
What might changes in the language used about asylum-seekers mean?
Under the previous Labor government, asylum-seeker policy was the responsibility of a Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.
Now, in the new Coalition government, it's being handled by a Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.
And there's a senior military officer in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, designed to stop what the Coalition calls "illegal boat arrivals".
Subtle changes in language?
Or something more significant?
In opposition, Scott Morrison was keen to portray a Labor government that had lost control of Australia's borders, and unable to stop what he called the illegal entry of asylum-seeker boats.
His first media briefing as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was held alongside the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, General Angus Campbell.
"Operation Sovereign Borders is the government's response to stopping the flow of illegal boat arrivals to Australia that commenced and occurred under the previous government, where more than 50,000 people arrived illegally by boat in Australia on more than 800 such vessels, costing Australian taxpayers more than nine billion dollars and sadly led to more than 1100 deaths at sea."
Mr Morrison outlined plans to strengthen cooperation between Customs and the Australian military to detect and intercept boats carrying asylum-seekers.
Continuing the expression he used in opposition, he promised the new government would adopt a tougher approach to "Illegal boat arrivals".
"And the policy of providing permanent protection visas to people who have arrived illegally by boat under the last government - that policy has ceased. We have commenced planning and implementation of the regional deterrence framework and other related measures, including maritime arrangements."
Jack Smit, from the refugee advocacy group, Project SafeCom, conducted a Masters research project on the language used by Australian politicians in the debate on asylum-seekers since the 1970s.
Mr Smit says the language has changed as politicians have to sought to portray themselves as worthy of voter support for dealing with a threat to Australia posed by asylum-seekers.
He says it was the former Coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard that began the use of the term "border protection".
"He started calling them 'illegal' in more vigorous ways than any politician before him. Secondly he started talking about the border and that we needed to protect the border and it is a way of saying that they're invaders of Australia."
However, Jack Smit believes it was an earlier Coalition Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who began the negative depiction of asylum-seekers in 1977, when he described some Vietnamese asylum-seekers arriving by boat as "queue-jumpers".
Mr Smit says it was also under the Fraser Government that some asylum-seekers were labelled as "economic migrants" which in turn raised questions over whether they were in genuine need of asylum.
"By 1978, two years after the fall of Saigon, the population on board boats that left Vietnam changed. They were a lot more well-dressed and also had a lot more money on them and they were well educated. So as soon as they threatened to arrive directly in Australia, Fraser's Immigration Minister Ian Macphee started calling them 'economic migrants'. They were described as 'bogus refugees'. That came from the Immigration Minister under the Fraser Government where these terms came, like 'bogus refugees', 'economic migrants', and 'fake refugees' and they used in the parliament and in the media, terms like 'they were too well dressed!', 'they were not malnourished', and 'they had a lot of money on them!', so they couldn't be refugees."
Mr Smit says the term "economic refugees" was used recently by former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr when describing Iranian asylum-seekers in response to a question from the Australian Greens in the Senate.
"The evidence is people-smuggling, economic refugees and a spike in numbers coming overwhelmingly from people who are majority ethnic or religious groups in the community they come from. The Green Party won't consider that. When people arrive in Australia without authorisation, any claims they make for their reasons to travel to this country are assessed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. If these claims are not covered by Australia's international obligations, they will be returned to their homeland wherever possible."
Associate Professor Jane Haggis from Flinders University in Adelaide believes the use of terms like "queue jumpers" and "economic refugees" have led many Australians to take a less sympathetic view towards asylum-seekers.
And Dr Haggis suggests that the Abbott government is playing upon public fear about boat arrivals, by trying to portray it as a national emergency which requires military intervention.
"They seem to be ramping it up to almost a war-like context, both with the naming of Operation Sovereign Borders and the terminology of border protection which, of course, they haven't instigated. It's been a long-running way of describing asylum-seekers who come by boat and the response to it, but I think ramping it up to a war-like status also comes from the information control that they now seem to be intent on establishing."
Dr Haggis sees similarities to the events in 2001 under the Howard government which became known as the Tampa incident.
At that time, the Australian military was ordered to board a Norwegian ship which had rescued over 400 asylum-seekers bound for Australia, to stop it from landing at Christmas Island.
Dr Haggis believes the Abbott Government's more regular use of the military in asylum-seeker operations suggests it could go further than the Howard government did.
"I think there are similarities obviously with the willingness to place the defence forces in that kind of situation which clearly sends a message that this is about national security rather than a humanitarian policy, but I think it goes further than Tampa in the sense of institutionalising the militarisation of the problem through Operation Sovereign Borders under the control of the military."
Professor Linda Briskman, from Swinburne University in Melbourne, has similar views.
She also believes the Abbott government's use of the term "Operation Sovereign Borders" is an attempt to make Australians think that asylum boat arrivals are a threat to national security.
"Aside from a patriotism angle to that which I think is important, I think it also signals that we're in some sort of danger and that our sovereign borders are everything and they're totally meaningful and that we need a military operation to stop people invading our land."