Dog-whistle politics

The word of this week’s Australian election campaign would have to be dog-whistle. Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton (previously nicknamed “Duffer”) has been accused of political dog-whistling by the media for a spectacularly inept tirade about migrants in an interview on Sky TV (here reported on ABC Radio) on 17 May 2016:

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English, and this is a difficulty because the Greens are very close to the CFMEU, as obviously the Labor Party is, and their affiliations with the union movement obviously are well known.

“Now, these people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that, and for many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it.

“So, there would be a huge cost, and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that, that’s the scenario.”

Dog-whistling in Australian politics

Dog-whistle has been in the political lexicon for several decades and the word is an Australian product that we have exported to all major democracies (we are an innovative lot).

The pioneer of dog-whistling in Australian politics is Sir Lynton Crosby, ex-Liberal campaign manager for ex-Prime Minister, John Howard, and recently successful UK Tory campaign director (for which he was knighted). Crosby is given credit for exporting this type of politics to Britain, Canada and other places (although not to the US where the tactic has been used for decades, but not, until recently, called dog-whistling).

Under Crosby’s influence, Howard had a reputation for dog-whistling—for instance, using code words such as “un-Australian”, “mainstream” and “illegals” in his speeches to appeal to racist sentiments while not offending moderate voters.

But as a dog-whistler Peter “Duffer” Dutton is more donkey-whisperer. His tirade fails as a piece of effective dog-whistling (and for articulacy) for several reasons.

Dog-whistling is code

Like a high-pitched dog-whistle that is only heard by dogs, a political dog-whistle tries to use messaging that is only understandable by those at which it is aimed. It tries to conceal a divisive message in a code that will not be offensive to more tolerant voters. Therefore the intention is to get political points from as many potential supporters as possible while offending as few as possible.

Dog-whistling is deniable

The other key feature is its plausible deniability: dog whistlers should be able to say that they weren’t understood or have been misinterpreted.

Contribution to the election

Duffer’s tirade fails the dog-whistle test on both counts: it lacked any subtle, coded or concealed meaning; and it was so clumsy it was impossible for him to deny what he said. Therefore I give the media zero out of ten for labelling it dog-whistling and also Peter Dutton zero out of ten for failing so spectacularly at it.