28 April 2014

Kremlinology 46: Premier Peek-a-Boo and the Dog Whistle #nlpoli

In a scrum with reporters after a public meeting about the Corner Brook hospital last Thursday,  Frank Coleman showed he has picked up the tendency of some politicians to talk about themselves in the plural.

The reporters asked about Coleman’s tendency to shun media interviews and to pop up here as if he were playing peek-a-boo. 

“We” had a strategy, Coleman told them,  of talking to the “family” first and “we” would get to everyone else after.  Coleman contrasted that with the opponent he wouldn’t name who spent a lot of time talking to “mainstream media” instead.

That’s a noticeable choice of words – “family” and “mainstream media” just like it is curious the way he referred to what will happen when he becomes “leader”.

Insiders Talk the Same Way

Notice the construction of how the leadership supposedly worked.  One candidate talks to the “mainstream media”,  that is to outsiders. Coleman talks to the “family.” 

It’s fundamentally the same way that party president Cillian Sheahan described the leadership process in an interview with CBC a couple of nights before. Sheahan used different words, but he broke things down the same way.  There’s a stage when candidates would  focus first on talking to the party grassroots.  Later on the successful candidate would turn to speaking to everyone else.

As your humble e-scribbler has noted before,  the Conservatives don’t actually have identifiable members let alone lists. They started signing people up as members but that’s part of the leadership voting process. Other than that, there really weren’t people you could clearly identify as party members versus everyone else in the province. 

Both Sheahan and Coleman misrepresented what Barry was doing, incidentally, and that’s another thing worth noticing.  Barry had some general meetings around the province and did some media interviews, but, as near as anyone can tell he was also speaking to people that even Sheahan would recognise as party members. 

Barry also showed up at Danny Breen’s campaign headquarters the night of the Virginia Waters by-election.  He spent a lot of time with campaign workers and with MHAs.  Frank Coleman didn’t.  His absence was rather conspicuous;  indeed it was rather conspicuously conspicuous.  It was almost as if Coleman were trying really hard to appear to be a party outsider.

And in that context, you can see that Sheahan was showing a surprising of bias when he said that it was “strategically unwise”  for a candidate to speak to the people of the province before winning the leadership.  When asked about the idea that Danny Williams was behind the plan to make Coleman the party leader, Sheahan told CBC that, as party president, he could confirm “no one person” was dictating the outcome of the Conservative leadership.  Lay that choice of words alongside what Barry told the Telegram’s James McLeod last week that your “premier is chosen by, probably a dozen people.” 

Make out of that what you will, but for now just go back to that idea of the inside versus outside,  the phase of talking to party members first and not the public and, as Coleman put it, of talking to the “family” and not the “mainstream media.”

All in the family

At the most basic level, it’s an “us” versus “them” construction.  The Conservatives since 2003 have been very good at using the Republican approach of defining the insiders versus the outsiders, the us as opposed to them, the righteous versus the sinners,  the right versus the wrong. 

Coleman’s choice of words in this case  - it’s at the 50:00 mark of Here and Now - adds an extra dimension.  “Family” has lots of natural, emotional connotations in our society.  It’s a word that has intrinsic appeal across the board but, for conservative voters – the lower case “c” is deliberate there -  “family” has a whole bunch of other connotations that someone coming from a staunchly conservative political and social background would understand as well.

Small-c conservative political activists usually talk about “family values.”   It’s a code phrase  for a range of views on abortion,  equal marriage,  and sex education that separate conservatives from everyone else.  Go back to 1992, for example, and you’ll see the political meaning of  “family values” in a New York Times article on the American presidential election at the time.

The local Conservatives haven’t made as much use of the family values talk as some might expect.  Probably the closest they came was in the 2007 election.  That’s when Danny Williams announced that the provincial government would give women $1,000 for each live birth or adoption.

Williams rather conspicuously said  at the time that “we” couldn’t be a “dying race.”  In hindsight, the phrase was odd because Williams now claims that he described the demographics problem as “bullshit.”

The fact that “family” has become a code word for conservative politicians is what made it leap out from Coleman’s remarks to reporters.  Now he only used it once so maybe there’ll be nothing more of it.  But it will be interesting to listen as the unknown Premier starts talking about his political agenda.

Will the mainstream become the lame stream?

If Coleman said “family” once, he did use another code phrase a lot more often.  “Mainstream media” is another one of those phrases that people probably understand in a general way.  They’ve heard it a lot over the last decade or so as a way of distinguishing newspapers,  radio, and television from social media like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

But to people on the political right, “mainstream media” is the “liberal media”,  the biased group that dominates society and that is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs and values. 

We’ve used these words with lower case initial letters – conservative instead of Conservative – to refer generally to political beliefs.  It’s the way you see Americans talk about politics where liberal is Democrat and Republicans are conservatives.

But the practice you will find among political activists in Canada is to translate the American ideas into Canada directly.  It fits into their world where political division is primarily the federal Conservative and Liberal parties. 

And the “mainstream” or “Liberal” media is a familiar target for local Conservatives.  Just go back to any annual provincial Conservative convention over the past decade.  A full-on rant against the evil news media was a stock part of Danny Williams’ speeches. Kathy Dunderdale trotted out the same foolishness whenever it suited her purpose. 

The ultimate example of the provincial Conservative attack on the mainstream media, though, was their orchestrated assault on CBC after NTV broke news of Danny Williams’ heart problems. Yeah. You read that right.  NTV broke the story.  The Conservative Party’s attack trolls went after CBC, though, with a vengeance.

This might just be nothing at all.  But then again,  the very fact that Coleman used a code phrase several times in one short scrum stands out.  It will be interesting to see if it turns up again.

And if Coleman and his followers start referring to the “lame stream” media and about all the reading he is doing, then you’ll know those code words didn’t turn up by accident.