On the evening of June 24, 2014, I knew I had to love the media. After having put my hand to run for the Tasmanian Parliament, I knew that above all other means of communication, the media was a powerful tool I had to use to get my message across and now, I had to learn how to deal with them and speak with wisdom.
After the announcement of my candidacy, I recall a thought provoking experience. In their reporting, ABC TV reported in those lines (not verbatim, but I can remember it quite vividly): ‘’A former refugee has become the first man from the Democratic Republic of Congo to run for the Tasmanian parliament […]’’ and the report continued.
Straight after the TV report, I remember my family questioning the report and not being very happy with it. To them, recalling on certain points of references such as the status of refugee and my cultural difference, could be both a positive sign of resilience and an inhibiting factor to me being elected. To them, the report wasn’t really the problem, but it was the first idea it gave that concerned them. In Pyschology, this is called the ‘’Anchoring or Focalism’’.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that explains the natural tendency to rely on and believe the first piece of information or evidence presented to us. This piece of information is called the anchor. With over 35,000 decisions that an adult human being makes in a day, anchoring plays a critical role in making judgements, making decisions, influencing our instinct and daily transactions.
In a practical way, once an anchor is set, it affects your judgments and makes your brain very biased on the decision you are about to make or the option you are about to take. For example, if you go on the market to bargain for a brand new car, the initial price set on the car automatically sets boundaries in your head on how low you can/can’t go while bargaining. Unknowingly to you, this has automatically influenced your whole bargaining conversation with the dealer. The same thing applies to many other areas such as politics.
So, by referring to me as a former refugee and migrant, the effect of anchoring would definitely play on people’s minds and depending on their political affiliations, it could create either a sense of positive or negative personality about the candidate presented to them. This highlights just how important and critical the language used in reporting is. This language for so often legitimatises some political agendas used by different political figures in recent years. Terms like boat people, invaders, queue jumpers, illegal maritime arrivals, and takers of Australian jobs are only a few of the many examples that can be referred to, to justify a shift in asylum seekers policies, the adoption of offshore processing, and the questioning of social and economic contributions of migrants in Australia.
The media so often presents anchors that influence people’s judgements about migration, refugees and asylum seekers. Politicians do it too, even more and to a greater extent.
Here’s another case: Blaise Itabelo – a friend of mine who lives in Queensland and who decided to run for local government. Unfortunately, Blaise could not continue in the race due to what he called immigration bureaucratic hampers. On 7/11/2015, The title of the Brisbane Times read: ‘’African refugee’s bid for council seat’’. The article reads in its first two 2 sentences:
‘’ An African refugee who fled war-torn Congo will run for a seat on a southeast Queensland council when he gains his Australian Citizenship. Blaise Itabelo, who has lived in Australia for four years, says he will nominate himself as a candidate for Division Five in the Logan City Council so he can fully participate in Australian democracy’’. (Similar words were echoed in the Australian on 6 November 2015).
When Blaise unwillingly dropped out of the race, the title of the Courier Mail on 23 February 2016 read: ‘’A refugee has missed out on running for Logan City Council because of a ‘bureaucratic bungle’ to become an Aussie citizen’’.
There is a recurring term in this: ‘’a refugee, African refugee’’. Blaise isn’t identified as a former refugee, but as current refugee.
But here is the truth. At a very young age, Blaise fled war-torn Congo to Tanzania where he lived as a refugee under the protective wings of UNHCR and the Tanzanian government. A few years ago, Blaise got the life-changing chance to be resettled in Australia and was told before and after arriving in Australia that this is his new home. The fact there is that Blaise was born Congolese, he lived in Tanzania as a refugee; but the moment he stepped his feet in Australia his new home, his refugee status ended on the tarmac at the airport. Because it’s impossible to be refugee in your home! When you are home, you are home. But when you are out of home and living in another country, then there is a possibility of you being referred to as refugee.
What the media does, and sometimes unknowingly, is it reassigns a past status that continues to shape someone’s life in their new home. Here is my question to you: When do you think Blaise’s refugee status will end? The deductive answer from the news report is: ‘’NEVER’’.
On 21 June 2013, ABC 7.30 reported on another friend of mine, Isaiah Lahai: ‘’A refugee from Sierra Leone has told his story of violence and hope in his new homeland’’. Like in the case of Blaise, I see another contradiction here: how can you be a refugee in your homeland? But this is a man who won the Pride of Australia 2014 Tasmanian Award!
Last week, the election of Lucy Gichuhi to the Australian senate, replacing former South Australian Senator Bob Day was not an exception to the rule. A photo caption from a photo on ABC News website reads: ‘’The woman to replace Bob Day is from Kenya, and has been a volunteer lawyer with the Women’s Legal Service’’.
In a Multicultural and Diverse Australia, there is nothing wrong with this caption on naked eyes. We need to celebrate our diverse backgrounds, especially when a member from a minority group is elected to parliament for the first time – mainly because it is exotic i.e mysteriously different from the ‘usual’.
Considering that just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said Australians look like every face and every colour (I agree with him), why then should there be anything as the ‘usual’, ‘unsual’ or ‘different’? The answer is clear: Australia’s political game is designed in such a way that it is conducive to a guy looking like our PM and not people like Lucy, Sam Dastyari, or Pat Dodson. That is why it is such a big surprise when a Kenyan-born, Iranian-born or Aboriginal man gets elected… because (hoops!), the bird has escaped from the fowler’s snare!
If the nation is to fully claim right of the title of ‘’Australia, the most successful multicultural nation on earth’’ as our PM daydreams, we need to be a nation where today’s ‘unusual, usual, different’ is not surprising anymore. A nation where the identical and homogenous is very surprising.
With no doubt, Australia’s media and politics have recently improved in their dealings with issues and topics in relation to diversity. But in my opinion, right-wing populism is ruminating the negative community misrepresentations of the past – just as ruminant herbivores do. Australia – the Australia of Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull, Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, etc- is at risk of traveling in the wrong direction.
The 21st century waves of migration require the Australian media and political landscape to grow, just as our population grows.
Siblings Media and Politics need to play an important role in educating our society on how to interact with new communities, by selling positive and unbiased messages which will convert the minds of people towards a far more inclusive Australia. They should become a channel that encourage participation in cultural, economic and social life. They should be a channel that promote the positive sides our society has to celebrate and contribute to public policy, from a public’s perspective not from decision makers’ perspective only. It is the duty of Australian media and politics to promote an active citizenry and participate constructively in public debate.
(This article has been published by other outlets by the same author, but with some modifications).