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Yesterday I head news that immigration minister Scoot Morrison wants to change the way that asylum seekers are addressed.  Apparently departmental and detention centre staff are to publicly refer to asylum seekers as ‘‘illegal’’ arrivals and as ‘‘detainees’’, rather than as clients.

I recall my experience on Christmas Island several years ago where I accidentally referred to those in the detention centre as ‘inmates’. I’ll never forget what the head of SERCO said to me in response. He said, ‘no they’re not inmates, they’re people. They’ve done nothing wrong’. He said that they correct way of referring to them was as ‘clients’.
I think language matters and to refer to these people as ‘clients’ affords these vulnerable people dignity and respect. It is a term which engenders empathy to their plight and suggest we are actually here to serve them. Yet referring to them as ‘illegals’ and ‘detainees’ provides opportunity for demonisation and antipathy to their plight.
Furthermore addressing asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ arrivals is actually wrong. They are not actually entering Australia ‘illegally’ if they’re claiming asylum. It’s true that they have entered Australia unlawfully, yet there is a sharp distinction between ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘refugee movement’. Unfortunately This distinction is very often misunderstood by politicians, the media and the general public and Morrison’s comments do not help.
Whilst these people have entered Australia unlawfully, if they are found to be refugees, these people aren’t “illegal immigrants”. There is a sharp distinction as the UNHCR said:

Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape and may have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape. Therefore although the only means of escape for some may be illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation, if the person has a well-founded fear of persecution they should be viewed as a refugee and not labeled an ‘illegal immigrant’.

Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Unfortunately the language suggested by the department pushes Australia’s policy away from the spirit of the refugee convention.
Yet most decisively if Morrison is correct in addressing these people as ‘illegals’, then the obvious solution is to deport them. If they are in our country illegally, then they must be deported. If they’re not deported, then it appears that ‘operation sovereign borders’ has failed.
Yet the fact that these ‘illegals’ are not deported en masse (although the PNG and Nauru ‘solutions’ appear to be de facto deportion schemes) betrays the fact that these people are not actually ‘illegals’. They are seeking asylum and under the terms of the refugee convention they can’t be returned nor deported. Hence, under the terms of the convention they do have a right to be here and they are not illegals.
Ironically there are around 50,000 people at any given time in Australia who are truly illegals in our country. The vast majority of these people are visa overstayers. This occurs when someone legally enters Australia on a student, holiday or working visa and they really like the place and decide to stay longer than the time stipulated on their visa. This contravenes the terms of their arrival and hence these people are illegal visa overstayers. (at June 30 2009, 48,456 people had overstayed their visas. The largest group of these visa overstayers are in fact English backpackers. It’s interesting that the politicians and media don’t make the same fuss about these people.
There is a savage irony here. Legitimate refugees who come via boats are demonised as ‘illegal immigrants’ when in the majority of cases they are quite plainly not. Yet the real “illegal” immigrants, the visa overstayers are ignored.
As I said before, language matters, and they way we address these people implicitly affects how we view and treat them.
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The news this past week has been dominated by stories about a proposed ‘carbon tax’. The Government (with the Greens backing) are proposing the tax and the Opposition are staunchly opposing it. In some ‘colourful language’ this week, opposition front bencher Sophie Mirabella made this claim ”If Miss Gillard believes Australians want to pay higher electricity and higher petrol prices, she is as deluded as Colonel ‘my people love me’ Gaddafi.”

Well, I want to challenge Sophie Mirabella’s assumption that all Australians don’t want to pay higher energy prices. I am Australian and I am happy to pay higher energy prices.

In fact in the past we’ve actually chosen to pay higher prices for our electricity. We got ‘100% Green power’ from one of our previous electricity suppliers. It did cost more, but we thought it was worth it. I was a full time student at the time with two young children but we managed quite comfortably with some innovation and thoughtful changes of behaviour. So perhaps here Sophie Mirabella isn’t speaking for us at this particular point in time.

Many people miss the point with a carbon tax. The tax is not simply a ‘big new tax on everything’ (that sort of tax is called a goods and services tax). Economically speaking a carbon tax, ‘internalises an externality’. Environmental impacts are not measured by our economic models. Things like air pollution, noise pollution and climate change are not measured in our economic models, they are ‘external’ to the model. This makes changing behaviour in a positive way for the environment difficult because there is no economic incentive to do so i.e. it’s cheaper to pollute than to employ expensive technologies to mitigate pollution. This is where a carbon tax becomes an efficient way of changing behaviour because it creates an economic incentive to change, i.e. there can be a buck in it. If a company can produce a good or service of the same quality with less energy it will give them a cost advantage. A carbon tax creates a situation where tax avoidance is encouraged!

This is why I believe a carbon tax will be a good thing. It will help people to see the full impact (environmental and economic) of their decisions, because the environmental impact is factored into the economic decision. It will help us change our behaviour, we’ll ensure lights are turned off, we’ll turn our computer off, we’ll use smaller cars. Companies will seek lower energy solutions in their businesses. The tax creates a financial incentive to be innovative and to use less energy.

I thought Australians were innovative and creative. I thought Australians could identify a challenge and roll up their sleeves and try to think of ways of dealing with problems. However as I see the sheer selfishness and greed characterising this debate, I’m left wondering that many of us aren’t so innovative after all.

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