It is very dispiriting to see yet another asylum seeker debate being driven by the same disregard for the human cost and the same disinterest in connecting the ‘debate’ to facts or reality.

A recent example is the bizarre assertion by the Prime Minister that the public or political debate on asylum seekers is somehow being constrained by political correctness.

For well over a decade, public commentary in letters to the editor, talkback shows and online forums have contained a vast array of views on this matter, including many that are extremely aggressive, antagonistic, abusive and vilifying – and all of which have clearly not been put through any sort of political correctness filter. Check any recent online forum on this issue and there is a high probability that it will be littered with outpourings of bile.

Leading up to a policy announcement addressing the issue of asylum seekers arriving in boats, Julia Gillard has said she’d

“like to sweep away any sense that people should close down any debate, including this debate, through a sense of self-censorship or political correctness.”<

It is simply ridiculous to suggest that public debate on the asylum seeker issue has been closed down or constrained by any sort of so-called ‘political correctness’. Maybe, just maybe, you could have plausibly put forward that view in the mid-90s (and not coincidentally, John Howard did just that), but if there was one thing Mr Howard did achieve on this issue, it was the removal of any tendency for people to feel they should be ‘politically correct’ in how they expressed their view.

I am not blaming John Howard, Julia Gillard or anyone else for the views that other people express. But political and other leaders need to be very clear they do not condone or encourage hateful speech or views.

Simply saying ‘people should feel free to say what they feel’, as Ms Gillard has just done in relation to the asylum seeker issue, could encourage some people to feel there is now an open season when it comes to abusing asylum seekers (or Aboriginal people, or whatever other vulnerable, visible minority gets put under the spotlight next). Encouraging and validating any view, no matter how toxic, is a recipe for increasing and entrenching community division.

Of course, Julia Gillard knows all this, which makes her strident dog-whistle tactics all the more disappointing. Hatespeech and racism are extremely toxic to a community and often directly harmful to the targets of such views. It also takes much longer to remove poisonous social and public attitudes than it does to change any laws or policies which are brought in to appease such views – especially if those views have received implicit endorsement from public and political leaders.

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