Thursday, April 28, 2005

The master of the dog whistle

UK: I was a Democrat senator living in Brisbane in 1992 when Lynton Crosby first came to public attention. Now Michael Howard's campaign director, at that time he was the state director of the Liberal (ie conservative) party in Australia. In that position he authorised one of the most ruthless law and order (crime and race) campaigns of Australian politics.

In one advertisement to which he put his name, a direct link was drawn between the fatal stabbing of a young woman and what the Liberals asserted was the Labor party's failure to act on "soft" sentencing since taking power in 1989. The ads said that the Labor party had "the blood of the victim on their hands". (The "dog whistle" was that the man who committed the murder was an Aborigine.)

There was a huge public backlash, but a clear pattern of behaviour, still discernible today, had been established: do whatever you consider you need to without concern for the consequences on the vulnerable and the innocent. As a result of Crosby's judgment the Liberal party did badly in that election; under his stewardship the Liberal party of Queensland lost more than half of its normal donations. Furthermore, in the 1998 election, with Crosby as federal campaign director, the Liberals' share of the vote fell from 38.7% to 33.9% and the number of seats held fell from 75 to 64.

Many Australians watching the current campaign in the UK are wondering how low Crosby will go.

For a start, he's employing the same script as in the Australian election of 2001. He suggested that Australia was being "invaded" by illegal refugees and asylum seekers who were said to have direct links with terrorism. Worse still, they threw their own children overboard (dog whistle - what sort of immoral, inferior people must they be?) in an attempt to force authorities to allow them to land. That's what the defence minister and others continued to say at every opportunity until election day, despite attempts by naval personnel to correct the "children overboard" misrepresentation. The conservative coalition, trailing in the polls prior to this, was re-elected handsomely.

Of course one year later when a Senate committee unearthed evidence that ministers and their ministerial staff had consciously failed to pass on to the prime minister naval concerns about the veracity of the claims, Australia's Mr Howard told the electors to "move on".

In 2001 I was seeking re-election to an outer Brisbane seat as a Labor candidate, having won this second most marginal constituency in the nation by 176 votes in 1998. In both campaigns I experienced first-hand the "under the radar" Crosby tactics.

While the Westminster village has been preoccupied with the big picture of national issues, Crosby will have been orchestrating campaigns of personal attacks and innuendo in marginal constituencies: that the Labour sitting member is not a local, that they are more interested in seeking a place on the front bench, that they are soft on crime/ immigration/abortion.

His Australian colleague, pollster Mark Textor, will be providing the results of nightly polls in crucial marginals. (Textor paid £34,000 in damages to a female Labor candidate for push polling in a Canberra byelection in 1995, wherein telephone canvassers suggested to voters that she supported abortions at 36 weeks.) You get the picture?

And in the background of the national campaign Crosby will have been conducting a war of attrition against the public broadcaster, claiming bias and unbalanced coverage. An Australian newspaper freedom of information request revealed that, during the 2001 campaign, 75% of all complaints from all political parties to the public broadcaster, the ABC, had come from Crosby. BBC take note! And constituents, even those with unlisted numbers, should prepare themselves for automated message calls from Michael Howard. Ask him where he got your number!

Having improved my vote by 6% prior to the focus on asylum seekers, I still lost my seat in 2001, but thanks to my Scottish grandparents I've been fortunate to have lived and worked in the UK for two years now. Crosby's tactics represent a truly serious threat to the civility and robustness of British democracy and the way most politics is conducted in this country. It may be all downwards from here on. A "colonial" legacy of the worst kind!

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to caution us about negative campaigning. Campaigns ought to be about leadership and values to aspire to. Those who choose to exploit the vulnerable, to play the race card, to give voice to our basest instincts, fail the test of moral leadership.

As that hero of conservatives Ayn Rand says, "The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it."

- Cheryl Kernot was leader of the Australian Democrats and a senator for Queensland, 1990-1997, and the Labor member for Dickson and shadow minister for employment and training, 1998-2001; she has recently been the director of learning at the London School for Social Entrepreneurs.

By Cheryl Kernot posted 28 April 05


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There have always been examples of rulings and interpretations that have supported the saying "The law is an ass". This is increasingly the case, because even the best intentioned judges are now facing an avalanche of new technologies and social change. But, it is no good making excuses for the judiciary and continuing to accept their strange interpretations. We must recognise that not only judges but the whole legal system will struggle more and more. In the end the whole system will become a farce. This is the way empires end.

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Historically, there have been periods when legal distinctions between animals and humans have been blurred. For instance, in medieval Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries, numerous trials and executions of animals occurred. One source identifies 34 recorded instances of pigs having been tried and cruelly put to death. Besides pigs; rats, chickens, goats, and bees were similarly tried. Some of the pigs were fully dressed in human clothes at the time they were, inevitably, found guilty. In one case a vicar excommunicated a flock of sparrows that infested his church. All this happened despite the theological stance that animals had no soul, and no morals or conscience. They could not really be guilty of transgressing the Rule of Law.