At the stroke of a pen, the Federal Government achieved something they’d been working towards for years.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton immediately championed the news, which was broken with a splashy leak to the the News Corp Sunday papers.
All the children are out of immigration detention, we learned. Finally they are free.
But just hours later The Guardian’s Ben Doherty broke a different story. It turned out, according to department sources, that instead of physically moving these children out of Australian detention centres, actually the areas of the centres where the children were had been “reclassified”.
The children hadn’t moved, but the Government’s definition of where they were had. In a radio interview on Monday morning, Dutton said all the children were out of “held detention”, and media reports suggest that the reclassification issue applied to just one family.
Confused? I don’t blame you.
This is how truth is manipulated, twisted and massaged in modern politics. Outcomes are not about real change, they are incremental movements in language and argument that enable a Government to say they have achieved something.
Today, language matters more than action.
The curious case of the un-relocated asylum seekers is a prime example.
“Announcables”, as they’re often called are the set pieces the Government hopes will drive the news cycle. We see them daily, sometimes they are “dropped” to journalists to ensure prime coverage, like the asylum seeker story was, sometimes they are nothing more than a stream of media releases, cluttering up your inbox.
When you take time to unpack these little snippets of “information”, there is often a very different story behind them.
The focus-grouped lines, the cherrypicked data, the new definitions of pre-existing conditions. Even the re-announced funding for projects already underway. Little in the daily grind of reporting politics is ever new or substantial if it’s coming from a politician’s press release or being offered up voluntarily.
Technicalities are the bread and butter of political discourse.
So often if you delve a little deeper into something a politician says, you can discover that it’s really 100 shades of grey. No the children haven’t been moved out of the detention centres, but how they are detained there has changed.
Yes the data does show there are no more children in detention, but that’s because a definition has changed, not because they’ve actually moved anywhere.
It’s like saying the boats have stopped, but not counting the ones that get turned around before they hit Australian waters. They might have stopped arriving, but have they actually stopped coming?
Those distinctions may seem like small things. But it speaks to an unwillingness to be straight with people. Very rarely will a politician ever open their mouth and speak the unvarnished truth.
In answer to a question about schools funding, you might get a spiel about state responsibility and the other side’s fiscal incompetence. On Medicare you’ll get spin about how cuts in some areas are the only way to achieve expansion in others.
Politics is often dull and dry. Trying to get people to engage with the details of, say, tax policy, can be really tough. So the solution for many years seems to have been not to really bother having those policy discussions. Instead the most-successful soundbite is simply wheeled out time and time again, until we’re all sick and tired of hearing it.
It makes the public shut down and glaze over, and gives the appearance of a busy government moving with purpose.
But we should resist the urge not to care. To let these technical truths slide by. Telling half the story is disingenuous. It creates a false impression of progress where perhaps there has been none, and it erodes trust.
Australian doctors talk about the conditions in offshore immigration detention (post continues after video):
People interpret the half-truths differently. Some will defend them and say they are correct, others will call them flat out lies. But there’s no denying that a world in which reclassifying a section of a detention centre and calling that removing children from detention is a surreal and somewhat absurd place.
Politicians need to lift their game. More honesty, less spin, less half truths. Full disclosure.
The truth is rubbery and complex. It is never simple. If you’ve ever asked a politician to unpack a statement, you’ll know you hit hostility fairly fast. You’ll get a lot of responses like “the data says this” or”the budget documents say this”.
You will get push back as you pull at the thread and try to unravel the meaning behind the spin.
Truth in politics has for too long been built on manipulation, and it needs to stop.
Because the one unassailable truth about politics is that every decision politicians make affects people’s lives. They may not affect your life, but they do affect someone’s life.
This decision affects vulnerable children asking for Australia’s help. It appears that the truth is disingenuous at best, deliberately misleading at worst.
A cynical, technical truth.
We deserve better, and so do these children.