“Allegiance To Australia”: How Politicians Are Using Language To Dumb Down Democracy
The government's rhetoric on "national security" is designed to scare, distract and exhaust its opponents.
Last week, a new anti-terror bill was introduced to the House of Representatives, apparently satisfying the government’s monthly quota for controversial national security laws. If passed, the legislation will allow the Government to strip citizenship from dual nationals suspected of terrorism and stop them from returning to Australia.
But one aspect of the Bill deserves a little bit of extra attention: the title of the thing. Introducing (bugle, please) the Allegiance to Australia Bill 2015. It’s snappy, alliterative and would probably fit nicely onto a mildly offensive banner or between a dozen flags.
— Van Badham (@vanbadham) June 23, 2015
Of course, the boring long title mentions citizenship and amendment and blah blah semantics blah. But when it gets passed – and with what is shaping up to be bi-partisan support, it looks like it will – the Government will be able to proclaim, in good, old plain English, that “allegiance to Australia” is now enshrined by law. It’s almost trite to say we are facing an age of disillusionment in Australian politics — a 2014 ANU poll revealed only 43 percent of respondents believed it wouldn’t matter which major party was in power. Political market researcher Tony Mitchelmore posits that people are becoming disillusioned by the “political gamesmanship” between parties, and a 2013 Centre for Advancing Journalism poll found that 57 percent of respondents, who typically voted on both sides of politics, felt that the tone of political debate is worse now than in the past.
It’s time to seriously question the impact obscuring political language is having on our national conversation – and whether the Allegiance to Australia bill is just the latest example.
What Even Is “Allegiance To Australia”?
In order to answer whether this name reflects the content of the bill, it’s necessary to break it down a little more. In this context, “allegiance” means loyalty to the sovereign or government of the day. This doesn’t mean you have to love barbecues and Vegemite, but as the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear, it does include not threatening the safety and security of fellow Australians. So introducing strong legal repercussions for those who do through acts of terrorism, such as fighting for the so-called Islamic State, is reasonable — there’s already a legal mechanism that allows stripping citizenship from anyone who dons the uniform of a country Australia is at war with, and similar (but not identical) provisions were introduced into the UK in 2014 under the Immigration Act 2014, and Canada under the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act.
However, the bill’s short title isn’t a stand-alone sound bite. The underlying implication seems to be that not supporting this law means you do not support allegiance to Australia itself, a message that feeds perfectly into the obfuscating #TeamAustralia narrative, one that blurs the line between being a responsible citizen and patriotism, discourages criticism and uses the language of fear to expand executive powers. This was demonstrated even further this week as Labor’s opposition to the bill was derided as “rolling out the red carpet” for terrorists (alliteration, nice!), and the equally coercive question “whose side are you on?” was posed to the ABC.
Beyond all of that is one simple question: if this is a reasonable and necessary piece of legislation, why does it need to be tied to inflammatory rhetoric at all?
Why Is Obfuscating Language A Problem?
There are at least two distinct ways that language is used to obscure meaning in contemporary Australian politics. The first is sloganeering language, dressed as “plain” English. The second is militaristic rhetoric that plays on fear and division. Both tend to remove complexity from the issues they address, or tie policies to irrelevant or secondary issues.
Take, for example, the “plain language” of John Howard’s declaration that “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come,” a stroke of political genius. It was simple, strong and made excellent use of superficially inclusive pronouns. His opinion is pretty clear. Never mind the blurring of migrants and asylum seekers; never mind that the manner of arrival is irrelevant under international law. Just dust it with that handy all-purpose seasoning ‘national security’ and voila: your electorate eating out of your hand.
George Orwell once claimed that insincerity is “the enemy of clear language.” But Australian politics makes it clear that plain language can be just as obfuscating as the flowery Latin-laced phrases of Orwell’s days. Take your pick from the bombardment of two-to-three word slogans: “queue-jumping,” “stop the boats,” “axe the tax”. Is that the sincerity Orwell was talking about?
Then there is the second type of speech – the militaristic rhetoric that comes up in relation to anything Australians might be scared of, including the Allegiance to Australia bill. Think about “unauthorised maritime arrivals” for a moment: a term that was inserted into the Migration Act 1958 in 2013. It presupposes that a refugee boat requires “authorisation” to enter Australian waters and suggests a connection to naval matters, which is generally how “maritime” is used. Having a militaristic response to an unauthorised maritime arrival seems pretty reasonable, but what about to a boat full of asylum seekers? The Coalition’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” and the “Australian Border Force” are also brilliant turns of phrase, turning a humanitarian issue into a threat to “national security”. Even if you agree with the underlying policy, it’s worth asking: is it really addressing the sovereignty of our borders?
But Can’t We See Through All This With A Bit Of Common Sense?
If the misuse of language in this way is so obvious, can’t we just ignore it? After all, who says that politicians are supposed to use accurate or sincere language? Well, no one does. This is at the crux of the problem. The relationship between language and democracy exists in a rather strange circle. Politicians are elected to represent our views, yet to be elected often requires succumbing to the requirements of political spin. Former politician Lindsay Tanner incisively laments that “any politician brave enough to push back against the rules of the political sideshow” faces “glorious irrelevance”.
So back to the slogans we go. With a bit of common sense, it is definitely possible to get to the real questions we need to be asking. In the case of the Allegiance to Australia bill, these are questions like: should a Minister have the power to revoke the citizenship of someone who has not been tried before a court? Or, what does “renunciation [of citizenship] by conduct” actually mean? Constitutional law expert George Williams has argued that things like airing controversial opinions, downloading IS propaganda and entering a government-designated “no-go zone” may lead to an individual being automatically stripped of citizenship.
But digging down to the real questions beneath all the slogans and rhetoric is exhausting – and perhaps that’s where the real danger of obscuring language lies. It doesn’t breed engagement, or empower the electorate to make well-informed decisions, or even succeed in being inflammatory enough to instigate change. Perhaps this is what leads to survey results in which one third of respondents want to have a “none of the above” option included on ballots. While everyone seems to be talking about threats to Australian democracy, one of the biggest tends to fly under the radar. It’s indifference, and it runs deep.
Em Meller is a writer, editor and law student. In the past, she has been Subeditor/Online Coordinator for The BRAG and editor of The Full Bench law journal. Humblebrags @EmMeller, and in person.