“This is looking really good.”
“[The creative agency] have really brought their A game.”
These words of praise relate to a grim set of horoscopes developed for the Australian government to scare off Sri Lankan asylum seekers who might try to come to Australian by boat.
The horoscope chart, first revealed by BuzzFeed News in December, gave each star sign a slightly different, but equally horrifying, reason to avoid the journey.
Geminis were told they would lose their wife’s jewellery. Tauruses would be returned home, where they would “face the humiliation of failure” in their community. Sagittariuses would forever be in debt.
The Australian government has refused to answer questions about the horoscope chart.
But a new tranche of emails obtained by BuzzFeed News under freedom of information law sheds more light on the advertising project, including the warm reception drafts of the horoscopes were met with.
The horoscopes were distributed in May 2018, the documents reveal, although how and where it was published remains unclear.
“Great work,” wrote the strategic communications director of Operation Sovereign Borders’ Joint Agency Task Force, whose name was redacted in the documents, when they were sent a “reworked” version of the horoscope chart in April 2018. “[The creative agency] have really brought their A game.”
The director offered some feedback about the text of the horoscopes.
“Several of the predictions are focused on financial consequences, which is good, but I’d like to include one about not trusting people smugglers,” they wrote.
They included a suggestion: “You will be exploited by a criminal: if you unwisely trust someone who offers you illegal travel by boat, they will cheat you and steal your money.”
That suggestion appears to have been adapted in the final Aries prediction. “Criminals will rip you off: If you attempt to illegally travel to Australia by boat, expect people smugglers to take advantage of you. These criminals will take your money and you will be returned to Sri Lanka with nothing.”
The director also advised that the word “return” was preferable to “turn back” when describing what happens to boats Australia intercepts on the way from Sri Lanka. That language was more accurate, credible and defensible, the director wrote.
The Department of Home Affairs developed talking points in case the government was asked about the advertising material.
They defended the products as creative and engaging, and said they would capture the attention of an audience. That would help inform people about the dangers and consequences of attempting illegal migration to Australia by boat, the talking points said.
The heavily redacted emails contain communications back and forth between the department, the company who created the horoscope, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in April and May 2018.
The emails make it clear the horoscopes were created by a Sri Lankan firm, but its identity is redacted.
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Only 14 of the 157 pages of documents the Department of Home Affairs held relating to the horoscopes were released. The rest — including the 62-page creative brief and four reports written in June — were considered exempt from freedom of information because they contained business information.
An “affected third party” had asked the department not to disclose the business information, according to the bureaucrat who looked at the freedom of information request. The subject matter of the exempted documents “does not seem to have the character of public importance” and would be of interest to “a very narrow section of the public”. It would also not provide any insights into the expenditure of public funds, the staffer wrote.
Australia has a strict border protection regime and a zero-tolerance approach to seeking asylum by boat.
In recent years, the country has spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in countries from which people regularly attempt to flee to Australia, creating stern videos, graphic novels and social media posts.
United States president Donald Trump approvingly tweeted about Australian immigration posters in 2019.
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