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Prominent lawyer, Julian Burnside, describes the government’s language as “alarmist rhetoric”. In a number of articles on his website, he attacks both the language and the policies. The government, he says, has deliberately or inadvertently elided three distinct separate problems: border control, immigration policy and the treatment of refugees. It suits the politicians to dress it up as a problem of national security, border control and sovereignty. “They are not ‘illegals’; they are human beings,” he says. “They are being held in gaol. It is hypocrisy to call it detention.”

But why do journalists seem so ready to pick up the government’s language? Perhaps because values and fears are embedded in the language. In his book, Language and Political Understanding, M.J. Shapiro says that we affirm structures of legitimacy in our speech. Language is a bearer of political content rather than just a tool to speak about political phenomena. A “naturalist” argument appears to simply present the world as it is, where it is really being fitted into a moral-ideological system that would invite critical evaluation if it were stated differently. He uses an example about property to illustrate this. The initial premise is that society functions to protect the property of each of its members. From this statement can be derived the assertion that public ownership of land ought to be disallowed in order that society might function properly. The initial statement is phrased in such a way that it appears a given, a premise that does not invite discussion or disagreement. And once that is accepted, there can be no disagreement about the final assertion.

So it is with arguments about queues and legalities. Their existence is stated as an indisputable fact, from which can be derived policies of detention and suspicion, and arguments about the moral depravity of those actively seeking to enter the country rather then wait in refugee camps. If one accepts the “naturalness” of the initial premise that there are international laws dealing with the informal movement of people, then the language becomes one’s own, even if something about it still rankles.

Control of the agenda is also a matter of debate. Burnside accuses the government of deliberately restricting access to people held in detention so that they cannot be seen as individual people for whom the Australian public could have sympathy. In February this year, John Pilger attacked the Australian media for their timidity. “Last month, editors of the leading newspapers meekly agreed to a demand by the authorities that their reporters withdraw from the perimeter of the notorious Woomera ‘detention camp’, where suicides and hunger strikes are common. Since the refugee issue arose, not one reporter has had the wit or the backing to go under cover and expose from the inside camps described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser as ‘hell-holes.’”

Maqsood Alshams is a Bangladeshi journalist who knows detention centres from the inside. He spent 18 months in Villawood, before being released on a temporary protection visa – with a bill for over $60,000 from the Department of Immigration. Politicians want to lie and people to believe them, he says. But it concerns him that, even though we now know the so-called “children overboard” affair never happened, no one is prepared to admit that they

© Helen Cronin 2002

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