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The rhetoric of Ruddock.

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Thursday 28 July 2005

Annabelle Lukin, research fellow, Centre for Language in Social Life, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University


The Rhetoric of Ruddock  


As the whole sorry mess of mandatory detention begins to fray around the edges, threatening to completely unravel, it is important to ask how Australia became a place which locks up and deports its own citizens, sees children living their whole lives behind barbed wire, and subjects some of the world’s most vulnerable people to arbitrary and indefinite detention.  


Legislative change, the dispatching of the navy against boats arriving at our shores, and the excising of parts of our nation for immigration purposes, have all been significant moves in the building of fortress Australia. But hand in hand with these actions has been a regime of talk which has legitimised our current immigration policies and procedures. Many people have noted the impact of terms like ‘unauthorized arrivals’, ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘unlawful non-citizens’ or ‘queue jumpers’ to justify locking up people fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. But the problem goes deeper than this strategic choice of nomenclature.  


The rhetorical style of previous immigration minister Philip Ruddock created a semantic climate in which it was not only possible, but easy, to take a mental holiday from the human experience of mandatory detention.  


Over his years as immigration minister, Ruddock developed an idiosyncratic style in which he has been able to take bureaucratic language to new heights, or depths, depending on your perspective. Let me exemplify with a classic piece of Ruddock-ese.  


In June 2003, it briefly appeared that the Family Court may have jurisdiction over children in detention. Minister Ruddock was heard to defend his government’s approach in the following way:


There are a variety of situations in which we, for a variety of reasons, hold children and there's no public outcry about that. I'm talking about children who commit offences, children who are neglected, who are taken into care, people who are put into institutions. It happens every day. For public policy reasons we need to have family groups, including children, available for processing and available for removal.

Ruddock was certainly strategic to talk of ‘holding’ children, rather than ‘detaining’ them. ‘Hold’ carries connotations of support and care, while ‘detain’ is a verb which sits rather uncomfortably when put next to ‘children’.  


And note his argument by analogy: if we can ‘hold’ children for some reasons, why should people complain if we hold them for other reasons?  


The last sentence of this quote - 'For public policy reasons we need to have family groups, including children, available for processing and available for removal' - merits particular attention.  


In this example, instead of ‘detaining’ people, we merely ‘have’ family groups ‘available’. And this is not something we ‘want’ or ‘have decided’ to do, but that we ‘need’ to do.  


Why? ‘For public policy reasons’. This careful choice of wording takes responsibility away from the humans involved in formulating the laws and policies which govern the treatment of asylum seekers. To attribute this responsibility to ‘public policy’ is like blaming ‘computer error’ in an accident, or a bomb for killing civilians.  


And the grammar of ‘family groups, including children’ being ‘available for processing and available for removal,’ is particularly insidious, because ‘processing’ and ‘removal’ become part of what the families and children are; not actions that are done to them.  


Even the choice of ‘family groups’, rather than ‘families’, helps to create a distance from the real people who have suffered the effects of these policy decisions.  


Ruddock’s linguistic and rhetorical style merits serious investigation. I have used a single illustration, but the problem was not created through any one single statement. Ruddock’s attack on these people has instead been like a slowly dripping tap, gradually eroding many Australians' capacity for compassion or understanding towards asylum seekers.  


While in no way implying that Ruddock is some kind of Hitler, I offer a cautionary note to those who dismiss talk as cheap. Victor Klemperer’s study of the language of the Third Reich shows how ways of talk become habituated ways of thinking. He notes the use of euphemisms - such as ‘special treatment’ to refer to execution, or ‘final solution’ for the extermination of the Jews. One can only wonder what Howard and Ruddock were thinking when they chose ‘Pacific Solution’ to describe the policy of detaining asylum seekers in off-shore locations.  


Guests on this program:

Annabelle Lukin  

Research Fellow 

Centre for Language in Social Life 

Department of Linguistics 

Macquarie University