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Dog-whistle politics and déjà vu

By Ken Macnab - posted Friday, 12 February 2010

The term “dog-whistle politics” originated in Australia during the Federal Election campaign in 1996, to describe John Howard’s winning ways and subsequent Howard Government policies. It was introduced into British Conservative Party politics in 2005 by Lynton Crosby, Federal Director of the Australian Liberal Party during the elections of 1996, 1998 and 2001, and is now understood world wide.

Dog-whistling is different from labelling, stereotyping, branding and dehumanising; it is deliberately covert and designed to activate concealed prejudices. The key to dog-whistling is to use coded language to convey an implicit, almost subliminal, message to a select target audience, while maintaining “plausible deniability” against accusations of prejudice or fear-mongering. The Double-Tongued Dictionary (2007) defines dog-whistle politics as “a concealed, coded, or unstated idea, usually divisive or politically dangerous, nevertheless understood by the intended voters”.

For 11 years dog-whistle politics became the standard technique of government leaders, Howard, Downer, Reith, Ruddock, Andrews and others, as they deployed “wedge politics” - the politics of labelling, stereotyping, demeaning, demonising, dividing and isolating “them” from “us”. It characterised their policy statements about “illegal” immigrants, the “war on terror”, Islamist “extremists”, welfare “dole bludgers”, Aboriginal “child abusers” and “no-hopers” and many other “target” groups.


Following the success of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party, the Howard government employed dog-whistling to appeal to voters with racist attitudes while evading criticism from those opposed to prejudice. Their ideological allies in the media spread these coded messages even more explicitly, dismissing complaints (when they bothered) as freedom-stifling “political correctness”.

Their critics were “the chattering classes”, “the chardonnay set”, the “latte-sipping elite”, the “guilt industry”, “do-gooders” or “bleeding hearts”. Ignore the message, attack the messenger; “play the man, not the ball”! All “sensible” Australians knew that people who were likely to “throw their children overboard” were “not fit” to enter Australia, as were those (worse still) who didn’t know who the “great cricketer” was out of Walter Lindrum, Don Bradman and Hubert Opperman.

Australian politicians became so adept at “dog-whistling” that in 2007 Josh Fear, an Australia Institute researcher, presented a lengthy paper titled Under the Radar: Dog-Whistle Politics in Australia. As Institute Director Clive Hamilton said at the time, “Dog whistling allows politicians to subliminally send multiple and ambiguous messages to voters, whilst denying they are doing so. It is becoming a refined art in Australia.”

Dr Hamilton added that words and phrases commonly used in “dog whistling” included “Australian values”, “the thought police”, “the black armband view of history”, “practical reconciliation”, “border protection” and “be alert, but not alarmed”. He didn’t need to point out that all these were John Howard’s favourite phrases.

As Josh Fear wrote, the “common features of dog-whistle politics” were “deniability; a select target audience; and coded, implicit or subliminal communication.” He argued that:

Over recent years, dog whistlers have been especially well-placed to exploit community concerns arising from overseas conflict and the threat of terrorism. They have also sought to create and inflame paranoia about minority groups and outsiders, and to taint the politics of immigration and Aboriginal affairs with parochialism and suspicion.


But in his view, “dog whistling is a problem because it undermines democracy”, by destroying the “clarity and directness” which were especially important in political communication. Mr Fear also said conservative politicians were more likely to use “dog whistle” tactics, while those to the left of centre seeking to distort the truth were more likely to resort to “spin”.

Déjà vu is the feeling that something has been previously experienced, often that uncomfortable episodes from the past are reoccurring. Unfortunately, they are. Moreover, they are accompanied by tried and trusted labelling and political dog-whistling, in three areas of current national concern: Australia’s part in the occupation of Afghanistan and the so-called “war on terror”; the treatment of an increase in refugees arriving in Australian waters by boat; and Australia’s participation in international action on global warming. All these issues have a direct impact on human rights and peace with justice.

For a start, the Rudd Government is justifying Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan in increasingly mendacious terms, in the face of a Newspoll published in March 2009 in The Australian, which found 65 per cent of Australians were against Australia increasing its troop numbers beyond the 1,100 already serving there. A growing number opposed involvement altogether. Pointing to the “hundred or so Australians who've been killed in terrorist attacks around the world”, Rudd claimed: “Those responsible for those terrorist attacks have primarily been trained in Afghanistan and neither America nor Australia have an interest in Afghanistan in the future becoming once again a safe haven for the training of terrorists.” In April 2009 Rudd made even larger claims: “We cannot ignore this cold hard strategic fact - less security in Afghanistan means less security for Australians.” He went on: “Handing Afghanistan back to terrorist control will increase the threat to all Australians.”

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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