20 September 2007

You whistle. Who barks?

"We can't be a dying race."

Premier Danny Williams

Dog whistle politics is the use of code words that carry specific meanings for specific segments of an audience. The majority may miss them, but for certain segments they have a different meaning than the one most people might assume.

The term originated, according to some accounts, in Australian politics in the 1990s and the ideas of Howard strategist Lynton Crosby. It's based on a theory of voter motivation that is far from controversial in and of itself. As Crosby put it:

"People don't generally vote simply on the basis of issues," he told a conference in Canberra last May [2004]. "They vote as much on the values and motivation of political parties in taking a particular position on an issue... It is the values you communicate, and the motivation you have, that influences the way people vote."

It's hard to escape the idea that there is something of a dog whistle in Danny Williams use of the word race, especially when you see the sort of posturing on the issue that turned up after the remarks. It's code in the local nationalist fringe, just as it would be in Quebec.

The themes in the last throne speech and the campaign song all have a flavour and tone which would appeal across several audience segments. There's the talk of pride of place which most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians feel and its a core value pretty well everyone has.

The bootie call policy itself is a pretty straightforward example of the sort of retail politics that took Stephen Harper to 24 Sussex last year. It also makes it appear to some people that the premier and his crew are trying to do something to stem the tide of outmigration by paying people to stay and have children.

But if you wanted to look at another layer, consider that idea of Newfoundlanders as being a distinct race of people is a notion most common among those who never quite got over their loss in the 1948 referendum. Williams has raised the traditional political theatrical device of the external enemy to a fine art, playing to the insecure and largely xenophobic crowd who thrive on the myths of carpetbaggers and Canadians who pillage the benighted people of God's other Eden. To those people, defending a Newfoundland race beset by a declining birthrate and the loss of their culture to the evils of the mainland is as instinctive as breathing.

But for most of "race' is such an odd word, that it's sudden appearance in public remarks by the Premier would elicit one of two responses. Either people would ask what he meant or, as in this case, the embedded atmosphere of the media on the bus might well lead people to rationalize the word as an unimportant anomaly.

Problem is that things are quite that easy.

Political messaging sometimes comes on layers, with different aspects aimed at different segments of the audience. It takes a sophisticated organization to research and detect how messages are playing in smaller segments of the population and then adjust messages according.

Williams has done it before. The one instance in which such a detailed analysis was conducted occurred in 2004 with polling on the flag controversy. The poll results were obtained by the Telegram under Access to Information laws. Shortly afterward, the Premier's office stopped purchasing polling other than CRA through any publicly accessible means. That doesn't mean the sophisticated polling stopped.

Political messaging in a skilled organization isn't developed on the basis of the simplified and almost simplistic analysis offered in the Corporate Research Associate's quarterly omnibus political questions. Skilled operators would know what messages resonate with specific audiences.

The Premier's race comment might just be a slip of the tongue. But don't bet on it.

Danny Williams is a savvy politician whose has built his success on surrounding himself with a team of capable, sophisticated marketers. He doesn't often drop words out there carelessly, even if occasionally he gets suckered into musing on taking away free speech. those are core to his political agenda.

In this instance, "race" is the word Danny Williams chose without prompting.

It's a word that was on his mind.

There's a reason why the word came up.

Maybe he was whistling a tune intended, in part, for some of his most hard core supporters.