Have you ever been caught up in discussion when everyday terms become confused and controversial? Can you remember an occasion when you gave your view only to then get bogged down in argy-bargy about terminology? Surely, we have better things to do than wrangle over words!
But sadly, wrangling over words is a good description of too much of our political debate these days. We see examples of this when laws are passed and justification for the legislation is explained. Everyday terms are altered in subtle ways. And then, it’s not just an impact upon our conversation but very often the altered use of a term has a big impact upon the people who are referred to by the altered term.
Consider what has happened to our national use of the term “asylum seeker”. Back in 1976 when the first “boat people” arrived in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (from 1976), they were indeed welcomed as “asylum seekers”, refugees. Australia’s open-hearted welcome of “boat people” from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, came about after boats started to arrive on our northern shores. The boats were “unauthorised” but this did not prevent the warm welcome to the “boat people” on board. They were, after all, “asylum seekers”.
By contrast with those times, when we now use the term “asylum seeker”, we have to confront the negative, even criminal nuance ascribed to it by laws that define the arrival of unauthorised boats as “illegal”. Those in the boats are thus tarred with the “illegal” brush. The implication of the policy (from “both sides” of the Federal Parliament) is that since criminal persons should be prevented from taking up residence in this country, so these people too should not be welcomed as “asylum seekers” because they are only able to make a claim for “asylum”, for refugee status, after having arrived in an illegal way. In a nutshell that is the problem we cannot avoid these days with the term “asylum seeker”.
What is QRAR’s response? Our preferred emphasis is to refer to the people we are seeking to assist, as people who, in good faith, are seeking asylum here because they dare not return to where they came from. They are caught “in limbo”, because of our country’s ambiguous welcome to those who have sought to come here by boats.
And so these people are now on a bleak treadmill continually re-applying for refugee status, with no permanent home, no right to unite with parents, children or family, not even any recognition of their contribution to Australian society over the past years and with little chance of citizenship. But these are law-abiding people, neighbours, who fully merit our support.
To be a citizen of this country is to be part of a polity seeking justice for all and that means extending a welcome to all fleeing oppression and needing a safe haven! That commitment underlies QRAR’s efforts. Need it be said that our country should be welcoming and neighbourly? Yes, we need to say it: again and again. This polity should be seeking justice for all!
Instead of wrangling over terms we instead resolve to mull our terms carefully, to speak clearly with friendly openness. Let us ascribe due respect to all the people we address. We ascribe due respect to our own responsibilities as citizens and so call on others to join in our campaign of welcome and assistance.
QRAR persists. Public governance needs to be characterised by our ascription of due respect to all our neighbours, and to all the everyday responsibilities we share. That also means developing an ethic of care for our language, our talk and our writing, thinking about the terms we use, and particularly ascribing due respect to those seeking a safe place where they too are ascribed due respect.
Bruce Wearne 03.02.2021