It's a term that seems to have made itself a regular entrant in the Australian political speech competition these days. Most often used perjoratively, 'dog whistle politics' is a term for a type of political campaigning or speechmaking which employs coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience. The analogy is that the code is outside the range of the 'normal' listener's awareness, as a dog whistle is above our range of hearing.
It's intention is typically that of plausible deniability. As an example, and it's where I suspect the term originated, the Howard government's statements surrounding 'illegal immigration' in the mid-1990s were said by many to be designed to appeal to the racist elements of society, yet none of the language used was technically or overtly racist. The racism could plausibly be denied, and thus those who were not racist but would otherwise support the Howard government could vote for them with clear(er) consciences, alongside the supposedly racist folks who heard that dog whistle. Anyway, Australians voted for him in droves.
I'm not exactly changing the subject now, people of Australia and fellow citizens of Northam in particular, but I'd like to ask you a simple question and have your first, viscerally-determined response before your wily self-image-protective mind gets hold of it please:
Would it make a difference to you if the announced Immigration Detention Centre in Northam for up to 1500 single men was instead to be replaced by a medium security (male) prison of the same capacity for Australian criminals?
If you felt a little discomfort for a second there, or just answered a simple resounding "yes" then you might want to run a bit of internal systems check.
To do this, we need to separate the issues out; primarily we need to separate our debate around how we manage the fact that there are asylum seekers arriving, what we do with them when they do, and how we reconcile everyone's fears and thoughts about the effects on our culture and wellbeing in the long run; from the simple issue of where we place a detention centre - as it's a given that we currently put them all (the men at least) in detention.
Northam had one of those 'town hall meetings' very recently that was supposed to be an information evening for concerned residents but which was predictably hijacked by a relative minority of louder, angrier folk (many of whom were not residents, arriving with their One Nation placards etc from Perth) whom the media naturally turned towards for good sound-bite footage as a frog naturally snaps its tongue at the tastiest-looking grasshopper it can reach. Commercial news reality there. So what ended up happening was that the many people who attended seeking some actual fact and information were unable to get it (what little there was to be had, that is) and just saw more piss and vinegar than they wanted to have in their lives. And the land as a whole by and large saw another NIMBY population to feed their fears and enjoy a tiny unspoken guilty moment of "thank goodness it isn't coming HERE".
I'll just put two words in here to encapsulate where we could head if we're not careful:
There. I said it.
Just recognising the dog whistle doesn't make it unaffecting, you see. Because once you identify it you have the responsibility to respond to the ugly fact of deceit - whether it was intentionally done, or just an artefact of the new reality that news must sell so what sells makes news. Even public broadcasters feel the need to compete for audience share if not market share to retain relevance so they fall increasingly under the same rules of engagement as the rest. In a way, the increasing partisanisation (is that a word?) we see in the US where you can just choose a news channel that whistles directly to your hearing range of opinion and/or prejudice is so much more honest. I mean, not everyone in Australia actually realises that The Australian is an anti-Labor propaganda screed as much as it is a valid news service. And not everyone appreciates that SBS does in fact have political agendas going on intentionally or otherwise simply by selling to a particular demographic and choosing the stories and angles to support that audience's set of self-images.
So what do you do when you see the whistle being blown?
My plan is to ask my fellow townsfolk which they'd rather - immigration detention centre or prison?
(Oh, and pardon my dog whistling. I do mean it to call out those who need to look at their issues with race and nationalism, as a priority over making decisions about the placement of detention centres. Apparently, dog whistles can hurt dogs' ears.)