Dead Cat and Dog Whistle Politics

ca_election_2015The Conservative Party of Canada has just mounted a strategic ploy to try and salvage a win in the closing days of the federal election campaign.

Throughout the first half of the campaign the Conservatives were regularly on the defensive, with the media giving extensive coverage to three contentious issues: First came the Mike Duffy hearings and the Senate scandal (very bad for the ruling Conservative Party). Then came non-stop coverage of the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and Canada’s appalling record in taking in refugees (another black eye for the Conservatives). This was followed by the economic news that Canada had just recorded its second consecutive quarter of negative growth and was technically in a recession (again, bad news for the Conservatives who were campaigning on experienced fiscal management).

But behind the scenes important changes were taking place.

LyntonCrosbyIn September Stephen Harper hired an Australian political consultant, Lynton Crosby (the so-called “Wizard of Oz”) who masterminded the political campaigns of the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Crosby has fine-tuned the art of “dog whistle” politics in securing his political wins. He is said to be especially skilled at finding issues that voters can suddenly seize upon to turn around a flagging campaign.

In 2013 Boris Johnson described one of the key campaign tactics he learned from Crosby.

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and, the more people focus on the reality, the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.”

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

In the French language debate last Friday Harper threw “the dead cat” on the table. Suddenly everyone is taking about “the niqab issue.” As Evan Solomon reported in a feature article in McLean’s (Canada’s national news magazine),

The NDP, which was once riding high on polls that showed Quebecers were ready to turf Harper, have whiplash. It has lost control of the agenda. It’s all niqab, all the time.

So, what is the niqab issue?

In 2011 the Conservative government implemented a policy stating that candidates for citizenship must remove any kind of face covering that could conceal their identity when taking the public citizenship oath. Since then precisely two people have declined to go through the citizenship ceremony under those conditions. (So this deserves to be a major issue?)

niqab-citizenship-zunera-ishaqOne of these people is Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman and devout Sunni Muslim who is seeking Canadian citizenship. Based on her religious beliefs, Ishaq wears a niqab, or veil, to cover most of her face when out in public.

She has stated that she is quite willing to remove her niqab in private before the ceremony for a female citizenship officer to verify her identity, but that she is opposed to appearing immodestly without the niqab for the lengthy public citizenship ceremony.

Ishaq took the federal government to court over the ban, and a Federal Court judge struck the ban down. The federal government applied for a stay of the ruling to prevent her from taking her citizenship oath and thus become eligible to vote in the October election. On September 18 the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision, saying there was no basis for issuing a stay, and cleared the way for Ishaq to take her citizenship oath. The Conservatives threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court, to once again prevent her from voting in this fall’s election.

Now the Conservative Party has made the ban on the niqab a major campaign issue. They have pledged that legislation will be introduced within 100 days of a re-elected Conservative government that will require one to show one’s face while swearing the oath of citizenship.

Chris AlexanderIn a news conference on Friday, The Conservative’s Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, stated, “Let’s be clear. This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.”

In this news conference Alexander also reminded voters of the Conservative government’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act passed last November. Alexander promised more government resources to uphold the act if re-elected, and also proposed a RCMP tip line where people could report “information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada.” 

As Edward Keenan pointed out on Saturday in The Star, when Stephen Harper refers to “barbaric culture,” that is dog-whistle terminology for “Islam,” and he is hoping that this appeal to Islamophobia will turn the election around and solidify his conservative base.

nun : niqabBut most Canadians are not Islamophobic, and outside that base, this tactic has resulted in an explosion of Twitter memes pointing out the hypocrisy of singling out face coverings worn by Muslim women as misogynistic and grounded in medieval tribal culture, but ignoring similar accepted face coverings worn by women in Western societies.

In addition, a host of satirical sites have sprung up such as http://www.reportyourneighbour.ca/ accusing the Conservative government itself of promoting “barbaric cultural practices in Canada.”

The majority of Canadians are able to see through this rather desperate diversionary tactic being mounted by the Conservatives. Let’s hope the debate soon returns to real election issues that the Canadian public actually wants to debate.

Photo credits: Rex Features; Patrick Doyle/CP; Canadian Press

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: