Saving or Endangering Refugees: The ‘Stop the Boats’ Debate

By Brianna Kerr (5015548)

Operation Sovereign Borders or the ‘Stop the Boats’ policy is a contentious government strategy aimed at stopping the maritime arrivals of asylum seekers on Australian shores. It is an operation that has divided both the Australian public and several political parties. One side of the argument is in support of accepting asylum seekers to ensure their safety, provide opportunity and abide by international human rights expectations. The opposing argument is against receiving refugees who travel via boat because it breaches sovereignty and security as well as impacts on the local economy.  To exemplify how this divisive nationwide perspective transcends into the media, this paper will scrutinise and compare two opinion pieces about the issue and explore the argumentative tools they respectively utilise to capture their intended audiences.

The two articles that will be analysed are:

“Stopping boats doesn’t save lives – it puts them in danger” Anna Shea

“Policy to stop the boats is working to save lives” The Australian

Both articles provide well-founded perspectives about the asylum seeker debate and as their titles elude, they emit oppositional stances. It is initially interesting to note who composed the articles to make the reader aware of some potential bias. The first article is by-lined as an opinions piece by Anna Shea who is a refugee researcher at Amnesty International. The second has not been authored by one journalist but rather, has been by-lined as an opinions piece by The Australian, suggesting its content is representative of the publication itself. Shea’s vested interest in refugee rights and The Australian’s classically conservative perspective have inarguably coloured the two articles and this was clear upon further analysis.  To introduce the core of the articles, let’s first identify their primary claims:

Anna Shea

Primary Claim:

The government’s decision to stop asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian shores is wrong.

The Australian

Primary Claim:

Tony Abbot’s decision to stop the boats was a positive choice.

Shea’s claim is adverse to the government and believes the policy is, in its entirety, negative. Whereas The Australian supports the prime minister and overwhelmingly sees the policy’s merit. However, irrespective of their difference, they are similar in their style. Both claims subjectively assess the policy, the actors involved in its creation and the people that are affected by it. Obviously, however their stances are justified through different stances.

Shea has arranged her argument to introduce the claim instantly, causing an immediate resonance with the reader.  She continues this argumentative sequence throughout, constantly reiterating her claim to ensure a compelling case. It can be argued that Shea’s article is inclusive of evaluative, recommendatory and causal elements.

It is evaluative because it passes judgement about the asylum seeker situation and is both coloured by personal perspectives and experience.

“Rich nations are simply not doing enough to share the responsibility for hosting the world’s refugees, with poor countries doing most of the heavy lifting.”

The claim can also be classified as recommendatory because it attempts to evoke a change of behaviour from the audience and the government in how they approach refugees and the way politicians interact with the nation about the issue.

“This is why Amnesty International is calling on the Australian government to launch a Royal Commission – an independent public inquiry with the power to compel witnesses – to investigate and report on allegations of criminal and unlawful acts committed by Australian officials, including allegations of payments made to crew and ill-treatment at sea.”

The recommendatory tone of this extract, with active verbs like ‘calling on’, ‘to investigate and report’, is intended to conjure a response from those who are being targeted.

And finally, the claim is partially causal because Shea threatens that if the Australian government does not change their attitude, worse outcomes will follow.

“Mr Abbott is urging Europe to become more like Australia. The type of world this would lead to is frightening to contemplate.”

The use of emotive language, ‘urging’ and ‘frightening’ is intended to evoke an empathetic reaction and reiterate the causal possibilities of the policy.

The combination of evaluation, recommendation, and causal elements in the type of argument that Shea presents contributes to its success.

Alternately, the argument The Australian presents is more factual and evaluative. The Australian’s factual argument is justified by appeals to authority through incorporation of sources that are accepted as widely credible.

As Immigration Minister Scott Morrison noted yesterday, 419 asylum-seekers had arrived in the same period last year. The government should continue to take a strong approach to vessels from Indonesia.

The use of authoritative sources like Scott Morrison acts to supply validity to the argument and, when combined with numeric statistics, it increases the level of validity. The issue that arises from relying on facts, especially evidence from a political source that has defined predispositions, is that it can alternately lessen the legitimacy of one’s argument. A liberal supporter reading the above quote would agree but perhaps not someone that is in favour of the Labor party. Using factual argument that comes from a contentious source means that it relies heavily on the evaluative presumption of the reader as to whether or not they will be convinced.

As such, elements of evaluation are also present, with content that passes judgement on counter-arguments as well as evaluation of the issue from a pro-stance. The way The Australian has arranged their case is central to its argumentative poignancy. By providing counter-arguments initially, it makes opportune the ability to build up on the argument rather than exercising the most important point first. In the opening paragraph of the article, The Australian presents a number of counter positions:

“Labor denounced these policies as unworkable, but ended up adopting offshore processing as its signature policy. The Greens were emphatic that turning back boats would never work. And their barrackers at the ABC and Fairfax often chimed in, arguing that offshore processing and turning back boats was a policy destined to fail.”

The article then precedes to dismantle these counter arguments with strong justification, concreting their evaluative claim.

“But, as this newspaper reported yesterday, up to five asylum-seeker vessels have been successfully turned or towed back to Indonesia by Australian officials in the past month with the knowledge of Indonesian authorities.”

The transition from explaining counter-points to debating their accuracy was an effective way to cement their stance. The combination of fact and evaluation incites a well-balanced argument that appeals to two types of audiences; those that respond to fact and those that respond to emotion.

Both The Australian and Shea provide arguments that are explicitly subjective, with each one conveying their own arguments convincingly. However, the conclusive nature of their arguments is dependent on the article’s claims being substantiated through varying justifications.

Claims and justifications accordingly rely on an underlying warrant or widely accepted worldview to ensure their argumentative success. Sometimes however, the combination of a claim, supported by justification and a strong warrant can be refuted if an informal fallacy is present. Thus below, justifications, warrants and informal fallacies are explored in regards to the two articles.

When analysing the justifications in both Shea and The Australian’s article, it is interesting to note the trend of oppositional claims causing contradictory justifications. This is exemplified in the table below:

CLAIM

JUSTIFICATIONS

Anna Shea: The government’s decision to stop asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian shores is wrong because… It puts refugees in inherent danger It is causing illegal activity It characterises us as less ethically and socially capable than other countries
The Australian: Tony Abbott’s decision to stop the boats was a positive choice because… It is saving people’s lives

 

It is stopping illegal activity It exemplifies our strong stance on national security and sovereignty

The above will now be explained in greater detail:

JUSTIFICATION 1 – Anna Shea:

The government’s decision to stop asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian shores is wrong because it puts refugees in inherent danger.

In one incident, asylum seekers and the crew from a boat turned back in late May 2015 told me that Australian officials transferred them from their large, well-provisioned vessel into two inferior and overcrowded boats, containing insufficient fuel, and told the crew to take them to Indonesia. When one of the boats ran out of fuel, half the passengers and crew then had to do a risky transfer to the other vessel while at sea.

The above extract also appeals to ethical norms of human safety, protective rights, as well as the right to seek asylum. It also appeals to emotions through analogies and adjectival language like ‘inferior’, ‘overcrowded’, and ‘risky’. This justification relies on the warrant that putting refugees in a compromising situation is inhumane. Yet, the issue that arises here is the presentation of an almost post hoc argument because, to assume that the action of turning the boats away directly correlates with or causes immediate danger, is not entirely verifiable.

JUSTIFICATION 1 – The Australian

Tony Abbott’s decision to stop the boats was a positive choice because it is saving people’s lives.

“Up to five asylum-seeker vessels have been turned or towed back to Indonesia by Australian officials in the past month…”

“No boats have arrived in Australia in the past three weeks because the policy of boat turn-backs, or tow backs, is working.”

This appeals to the ethical norm that the preservation of life is of the utmost importance, a value that is assumed to be widely held. The claim and justification rely on the warrant that any policy that focuses on saving lives is inherently positive. However, it could be argued that the informal fallacy present here is a non sequitur claim because it is illogical to say that it is better to stop people from coming here to save lives because refugees are commonly fleeing to escape dire circumstances.

JUSTIFICATION 2 – Anna Shea:

The government’s decision to stop asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian shores is wrong because it breaks international law and human rights clauses.

“In our report By Hook Or By Crook: Australia’s Abuse Of Asylum Seekers At Sea, we provide compelling evidence that boat “turn backs” (or “push backs”) not only violate international law, but put people in danger, are accompanied by human rights abuses such as unlawful detention and denial of medical care, and – in at least one apparent case – involve the payment of money to boat crews, which would qualify as a crime under Australian and international law.”

Unlike The Australian who framed illegal activity as pertaining to the action of the refugees, Shea targets the misconduct of international authorities in upholding the law. Whilst utilising the same justification as The Australian – an appeal to authority – Shea manipulates it to align with her argument. As quoted above, the utilisation of inductive reasoning, based on a report by Amnesty International, is effective in appealing authoritative means. The warrant that this relies on is that human rights laws are paramount to any other laws. The fallacy present with this entire argument however, is regarding facts and reliability. Shea’s argument is based around the aforementioned Amnesty International report and, as noted at the end of the article, she is employed by the organisation. This could be interpreted as a vested interest and thus puts into question her stance and the validity of her argument.

JUSTIFICATION 2 – The Australian:

Tony Abbott’s decision to stop the boats was a positive choice because it is stopping illegal activity.

“This is an evil trade facilitated by criminals. If Australians were engaged in this illegal activity, Indonesia would not tolerate it.”

This argument appeals to the counter of negative consequences and also employs an appeal to comparison by situating the Australian attitude alongside the Indonesian perspective. The justification relies on the warrant that illegal activity is inherently bad and should be stopped at all costs. The issue with this is the potential for it to be a slippery slope or hasty over generalisation of the complex issue of asylum seekers. It is a slippery slope because labelling people fleeing from warzones or adverse situations as ‘criminals’ is stipulative. It can be classified as a stipulative definition because there is debate and confusion about the status of refugees in terms of the law. This justification also relies on the evaluative presumption that it is more important to stop illegal activity than it is to be humanitarian.

JUSTIFICATION 3 – Anna Shea:

The government’s decision to stop asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian shores is wrong because it characterises us as less ethically and socially capable than other countries.

“What Mr Abbott has unwittingly demonstrated to the world is just how far out of line Australia’s approach to refugees has become.”

“Part of the reason that Australia’s approach to refugees has drifted so far from the rest of the international community’s is the government’s success at shielding border control matters from public scrutiny.”

“Mr Abbott is urging Europe to become more like Australia. The type of world this would lead to is frightening to contemplate.”

The comparison of Australia’s policies to other countries that are presented as doing the correct thing, appeals to a sense of customary practice and precedent of behaviour exemplified in developed nations. It relies on the warrant that Australia is not as ethical or accepting as other countries of similar standing. In relation to the above quote, Shea offers an Ad hominem argument by adding an irrelevant judgement of Abbott when attempting to evaluate the asylum seeker issue. By implicating a person without reason, it detracts from her point. Value laden language like unwittingly detracts from the overall message of the Australian government failing holistically and also adds an element of a straw person argument that attempts to attack the oppositional perspective through badgering or slandering.

JUSTIFICATION 3 – The Australian: Tony Abbott’s decision to stop the boats was a positive choice because it exemplifies Australia’s strong stance on national security and sovereignty.

“Tony Abbott’s promise to ‘stop the boats’ was iron-clad; it did not come with any wriggle room.”

“Mr Natalegawa [Indonesian Foreign Minister] says he will not allow Indonesia’s sovereignty to be violated. But nor should Australia allow its sovereignty to be compromised by boats coming from Indonesia.”

This appeals to governmental authority and also to positive consequences. This relies on the warrant that refusing refugees and sending them to their home country is positive for economic growth. This is an evaluative presumption that economic growth is more important than the refugee crisis.

Above are six explanations of the justifications, warrants and informal fallacies present in the articles. Three represent an affirmative stance and three depict an anti-attitude. However, with all of the contradiction, conjecture and disagreement, the two articles do agree on one point. Both Shea and The Australian agree that the government needs to enhance communication with its voters about the issue to ensure they make informed decisions.

Shea claims:

“Australians have very little idea of what happens when government boats intercept asylum seeker vessels, and government officials continuously invoke the phrase “on water matters” to avoid providing any information about what happens during these turn back operations.”

“The Australian public has no real way to verify whether Australian officials are actually saving people’s lives at sea, or putting them at risk.”

The Australian argues:

“Mr Morrison, however, can do much better to keep the public informed of progress in stemming the flow of boats.”

“The government must do better to communicate with voters.”

Both arguments appeal to popular opinion that the government is not transparent enough with their policies and both rely on the warrant that democratic governments should be brazen with their strategies and citizens should be made aware of all facets. It is thought-provoking that two arguments that are so contradictory agree on one of their most fundamental points.

Throughout the analysis of the two articles it is clear that they present a dichotomy of perspectives but one of the most interesting things about analysing argumentation is the way even the most cohesive arguments sometimes fail to change ones perspective. When comparing the two articles and their argumentative techniques, it is clear to me that The Australian presents a more substantiated and well-balanced claim; it is both factual and evaluative whilst maintaining low levels of informal fallacy. However, it did not convince me that turning away refugees is a positive thing, irrespective of its argumentative perfection. My difficulty to agree comes from a moral differentiation with what The Australian presents and thus I think it is important to note that what we identify with about a topic relies on our preconceptions as much as the quality of the argument.

WORDS WITHOUT QUOTES: 1988

WORDS WITH QUOTES: 2771

One thought on “Saving or Endangering Refugees: The ‘Stop the Boats’ Debate”

  1. i think your analysis is quite good, but unfortunately the article is marred by heaps of strange expressions and unconventional collocations. i suggest you try to write in a simpler fashion, with shorter sentences which you read aloud to check whether they are easy to follow. i’ve selected a couple of excerpts only.

    ..as their titles elude, they emit oppositional stances.
    huh? it’s best not to use words or terms that you are not so familiar with.
    by ‘elude’ i suspect you meant to write ‘allude’, but even then the use of this word is strange in that co-text. people or things can ‘allude to’ something, but it is difficult for things to instransitively ‘allude’. and ’emit oppositional stances’ is a very clunky strange expression. light can be emitted, but ‘contrasting stances’? i’m not sure, i.e. ‘oppositional stances’ is also a strange collocation.

    Obviously, however their stances are justified through different stances.” seems like a circular argument to me.

    The use of emotive language, ‘urging’ and ‘frightening’ is intended to evoke an empathetic reaction…” do not imply that you are able to read the writer’s mind. how do you know what ‘is intended’. and what is an ’empathetic reaction’? how would we be able to assess that this is the case? the potential and the claim that it IS the case are very different things.

    Using factual argument that comes from a contentious source means that it relies heavily on the evaluative presumption of the reader as to whether or not they will be convinced.”
    please rewrite sentences like this to be more precise, e.g.:
    “Using factual argument that comes from a contentious source means that it relies heavily on the assumption that the reader agrees with its findings for them to be convinced.”

    The combination of fact and evaluation incites a well-balanced argument…” you are misusing the word ‘incites’ here. there are many examples in your work of misused words. i suggest a dictionary be used in future.

    The combination of evaluation, recommendation, and causal elements in the type of argument that Shea presents contributes to its success.” how is ‘success’ judged? remember not to assess or evaluate the arguments – unless you can provide plausible stipulative defintions yourself.

    Shea offers an Ad hominem argument by adding an irrelevant judgement of Abbott when attempting to evaluate the asylum seeker issue..” i fail to see any ad hominem in the 3 excerpts you cite here. just because the article mentions abbott and relates what he has said or done that might which appear negative to some, does not mean the argument is ad hominem. for that to be the case, the writer would need to explicitly say that abbot was an idiot, or foolish to do so. once more, this is just one example of several that show that you have not fully understood the terms you are using.

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