August 2015

How do you make yourself heard?

Does it even matter if we have a perfect policy formulation in response to Australia’s refugee crisis if we cannot convince people of our point of view, asks Evan Ellis.

BY Evan Ellis

Imagine I met you in a quiet café and over a cup of coffee or tea explained to you, in plain, straightforward language the solution to Australia’s refugee crisis. Not the Malaysia solution or the Pacific solution but the solution – a proposal so compelling and sensible and achievable that you knew, without any doubt, if implemented it would work.

Now consider what you would do with this information. Trace your first steps after leaving the café. Who do you speak with and how do you plan to get the answer out? Do you write an opinion piece? Raise it with your social justice group? Call talk-back radio?

Really imagine it. Standing outside a café, one voice in a cacophony of some 23 million, how do you make yourself heard?

You see, there are two dimensions to the current debate about our refugee policy. The first concerns the nuts and bolts of the policies themselves; the stuff of turn-backs, push and pull factors, legislation, etc. The second, related dimension is the efforts to persuade people to support a particular approach.

The hypothetical scenario above conveniently takes care of the former to isolate just how difficult such persuasion can be. Put another way, does it even matter if we have a perfect policy formulation if we cannot convince people of our point of view?

When the ALP national conference removed a ban on boat turn-backs, it was another unmistakable signpost as to where the national sentiment now sits. The Lowy Institute found 71 per cent of people support a policy once considered inconceivable. The hardening of attitudes is both widespread and well documented. How do we challenge this? How do we argue effectively for more humane, less punitive measures?

The recent third season of the multi-award-winning SBS series Go Back To Where You Came From tests perhaps the most common idea behind winning hearts and minds. If people really understood the reality of the refugee experience, from their initial motivating danger, to transit and finally time in Australia (or more likely just outside of it), wouldn’t their view soften?

Kim Vuga, administrator of the “Stop the Boat People” Facebook page, explores this. While she was visibly moved throughout the series, her outlook didn’t shift. Somewhat worryingly, she claims her time on the show strengthened her hardline stance.


To posit a possible answer I must introduce my wife Chantelle. A community organiser with the Sydney Alliance, she has spent the last six months hosting ‘table talks’ between rank and file members of the Sydney Alliance and asylum seekers. As a broad-based citizen’s coalition, the Sydney Alliance doesn’t have a position on refugees. It doesn’t even aspire to one. Rather, it wants its members to continue the debate for themselves, but to charge the conversation with greater sensitivity to the human dignity of all.

Initially the ‘table talk’ began with an opportunity for people to share their own stories of hardship and vulnerability. Afterward they heard another story of hardship and adversity from an asylum seeker before being able to ask questions and break open the issue. Our shared humanity rather than bickering over policy formulations was to be a pathway to a newer, more constructive dialogue.

This approach changed after a meeting with the NGO think-tank Common Cause. This small organisation is the fruit of decades of detailed research that shows the same values occur with remarkable consistency across cultures. Values can be categorised under broad headings such as tradition, security, benevolence and self-direction. What changes is the priority different cultures (or even contexts) place on these values.

Hinted above, our context can temporarily ‘engage’ or ‘prime’ a particular value. A piece of media or experience can bring a particular value to mind. This in turn tends to affect our attitudes and behaviour. When reminded of benevolence values for example, such as being helpful, loyal or spiritual, we are more likely to respond positively to requests for help or donations.

Similarly, as in Kim Vuga’s experience of Go Back To Where You Came From, seeing the vulnerability and danger outside Australia’s walls only consolidated her position that the refugee issue was a national security issue. The entire show was unconsciously ‘priming’ her security values.

How we frame an issue then, the language we use to discuss it and define it can have a remarkable impact on the response we elicit. I doubt the producers at SBS set out to embolden Kim Vuga’s beliefs but they did. Now the Sydney Alliance ‘table talks’ begin by getting people to talk to values such as hospitality, generosity and friendship. The framing of an issue matters. So too do the communities, institutions and organisations we belong to that ‘prime’ our values and help cue our responses.

Such talk of ‘framing’ might seem like minutiae against the backdrop of Australia’s refugee policy but it’s important. Australia will not be in possession of a humane refugee policy unless we get better at convincing our peers that the current solution is no solution at all. The research of Common Cause presents a promising toolset to achieve this.

Evan Ellis

Evan Ellis is a freelance writer currently on contract in the public sector.

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