My father was a dog-trialler, and a very good one – 2nd in the 1947 New Zealand Championships with Speed. As a kid, I loved going to the dog trials, where I heard a lot of dog-whistles, and Dad won a lot of short-head competitions.
Dog-whistling entered the political lexicon after the 2001 Australian election campaign with Howard’s attack on the boat people, which I observed at close hand from the ALP campaign HQ. The theory holds that aluminium dog whistles operate at such a high pitch only dogs can hear them, and refers to messages that appear straightforward but contain a subliminal message to a particular target voter group. It goes along with wedge politics, another worn-out theory from the last decades.
As forms of communication, the political dog-whistle and the real dog-whistle are miles apart. Dad didn’t use an aluminium whistle, just a little finger crooked around his tongue. Everybody could hear it for miles around, even if the variations of tone only meant something to the Speeds. Communication between Dad and dog was powerful and direct, the partnership a delight to watch as they headed the skittery sheep down the hill, across the bridge and into the pen.
The political dog-whistle is a different matter. Supposedly about delivering clever mixed messages, now any pretension to cleverness has well and truly gone. Resorting to such tactics has become just another reason why people distrust politicians.
That’s why those of us in Labour who would like to see more direct and straightforward communication from our political representatives do not want to hear any more of this sort of dog-whistling. As a political strategy it is bankrupt. Shearer should wake up and drop it. So far we’ve had the earlier indiscriminate attack on poor teachers, and now the example of the roof-painting beneficiary in his latest speech. In today’s DomPost, not yet on-line, Hollow Man and dog-whistler extraordinaire Richard Long, who apparently has the inside ear, says we can shortly expect another attack on teacher unions to show that Shearer is on the side of parents.
This is not about left, right and centre either. I’ll come back to that in another post. It’s about good political communication. Mixed messages don’t cut it with anyone. They turn off supporters and give opponents an opportunity to ask for more.
Other insider defenders of Shearer’s beneficiary anecdote are Josie Pagani and more recently Rob Salmond. Pagani’s truckdriver has been worked to death. Salmond asks rhetorically “Can anyone seriously doubt Shearer was right as to the facts.” But the main problem in the anecdote wasn’t the facts – there weren’t any; it was the attitude it revealed. Shearer apparently didn’t think to ask whether perhaps the beneficiary may have been suffering from depression, painting the roof to save money as Kiwis do, and out in the sun because it is therapeutic.
If Shearer wants to say that Labour’s policy on welfare should be based on a social contract or some other form of mutuality why not say so directly? Then we can have a mature debate.
People are crying out for something positive, direct and straightforward from Labour. That’s winning communication. It’s not as though there isn’t heaps of opportunity, across the board.