The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Asylum Seeker Chaos Is Anything But

The other day, the Australian reported on the chaos plaguing the Department of Immigration and Citizenship caused by independent reviewing of asylum seeker applications. Chaos is clearly Liberal MP Scott Morrison’s favourite word to use, and like the Australian, the ABC were happy to quote it as part of their headline when they reported on a High Court decision establishing the legal processes available to asylum seekers a few months ago.

In the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So for the benefit of anyone reporting on the Australian immigration process, asylum seekers or Scott Morrison, I present Cambridge’s definition of the word chaos:

a state of total confusion with no order

Funny, then, that the aspects of the immigration process Morrison calls chaotic are actually the things that enforce accountability and reduce variation based on political whims (ie. discrimination), and establish the relevant legal process for asylum seekers. Or, in other words, things that establish order and eliminate confusion.

This is not just a word-usage quibble. The word chaos is evocative of a very real and justifiable fear — chaos in legal proceedings; the fear that when it might come time for the law to be applied to us, we won’t know where we stand and that judgement will be capricious. In the context of asylum seekers, it also hits upon some peoples' fear of not being able to personally control who enters the country and their community. Morrison is using the word incorrectly here, and the objective-and-neutral journalists who report on him are happy to uncritically turn it into a headline, elevating it from its context of functional illiteracy to established fact. It is designed to make as many people as possible feel uneasy about what is, in fact, legal accountability and due process.

Bad maths pun
It's hard to enforce border security when you have an infinite coastline.

The upshot of all of this chaos is that policy makers know what they can and can’t do, everyone from DIAC to the navy know what responsiblities they have and what laws they’re accountable under, and asylum seekers can know what their rights are. Furthermore, DIAC now have an independent metric for their ability to do their job.

The parts that are chaotic are the parts that are unaccountable and opaque, and therefore uncontrollable and unpredictable — having the minister make a completely arbitrary decision as to whether someone gets to live here, or letting ASIO scratch themselves for a few months before flipping a coin. (If you think I’m wrong about the ASIO process, please table any relevant documentation of the process they really use.) Also chaotic, of course, is the race-to-the-bottom approach of making up policy based on prejudice rather than evidence, mere weeks before an election.

Clearing up the rules of the game does not lead to chaos. Correcting a bad decision does not lead to chaos. But if it seems to happen a lot — in DIAC’s case, more than 70% of the time — well, it might be a symptom of a deeper problem.

PS. I also feel morally obliged to reveal that I hated The Princess Bride and stopped watching it after half an hour.


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