Houston, do we really have a problem?

The conversation surrounding asylum seekers has concentrated on finding a solution. But what exactly is the problem we are trying to solve, asks Poppy Burnett.

Photo credit: Department of Defence, Commonwealth Government Photo credit: Department of Defence, Commonwealth Government
Photo credit: Department of Defence, Commonwealth Government

The release of the ‘expert’ panel’s report on asylum seekers and the subsequent reintroduction of off-shore processing has generated yet another round of frustratingly familiar rhetoric.  The words ‘solution’ and ‘problem’ are thrown around so often I’m starting to feel like I’m back in high school maths or attending a get-rich-quick seminar. But what meanings are they hiding?

It has come to be taken for granted in the dominant political and media discourse that the mere fact of boats arriving is a ‘problem’, and that anything that stops them is a ‘solution’. It can be easy to deploy these terms without being critical of the assumptions behind them.

But to view the arrival of boats as a ‘problem’, as so many politicians now do, is to ignore a complex web of factors that lead to boats arriving here and to how they are received when they arrive.

One need hardly look far for examples of the ‘boat equals bad’ formula. Almost every news article contains a numerical summary of boat arrivals in recent months as if it were self-evidently problematic. Bleating cries to ‘stop the boats’ can be heard from Tony Abbott’s side of the house so often one could be forgiven for wondering whether they’ve set up a farmyard in there.

And, in case you were ever in any doubt about how you should visualise the arrival of asylum seeker boats, the ‘flood’ of water-related imagery supplied by the media should help you out: torrents, flows, deluges, swamps, and streams are apparently ‘inundating’ our shores on a regular basis.

It is clear that the problem is seen to lie in the arrival of boats. But what about the solution? There has been a recent revival of nostalgia about ‘the Pacific Solution’ and Howard-era asylum seeker policy: ‘it may have been cruel, but it worked’. It’s a persuasive line of reasoning for some, apparently sweeping aside all humanitarian concerns with a stubborn insistence of efficacy.

But what precisely does ‘it worked’ mean?  For whom is it working?  These questions are treated as if they had obvious answers, but if you stop to think, they don’t.  The definition of ‘worked’ here is clearly very narrow – it applies only if you believe both that ‘stopping the boats’ is a desirable goal, and that this can be achieved through changes to domestic policy.

If you believe otherwise, or if you were an asylum seeker caught up in the consequences of the Pacific Solution or Temporary Protection Visas, you might have a very different idea of what something that ‘works’ looks like.

The use of universal terms like ‘problem’, ‘solution’, and ‘worked’ serves to normalise a particular viewpoint to the exclusion of all opposing voices. If you wish to express a view that doesn’t accept the basic premises behind the dominant perception of what is a ‘problem’ and what is a ‘solution’ (such as examining global factors that influence the rate of boat arrivals, or questioning why the arrival of boats is inherently problematic) you are further alienated from discussion.

It is in this way that those in power (politicians, media owners) control the discourse around an issue – by setting the terms of the debate, and making it difficult for those who don’t accept the terms to engage. They don’t have to waste space or time trying to argue their position – they just make it seem like the natural state of affairs.

It should be obvious that looking for a solution to a problem that hasn’t been clearly justified is, well, problematic. The real danger this country faces is not being able to see the forest for all the trees.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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