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Dorothy Dobbie: Maybe your political opponent is a dog-whistling hate-monger—or maybe you’re just losing the battle of ideas

Commentary

If you have a dog, you will know that a dog whistle makes a high-pitched sound that only dogs can hear. But if you are a public figure accused of issuing one, it is quite another matter.

“Dog whistle” has become a popular phrase, frequently uttered by activists over the past few years. I got curious about its precise meaning when a left-wing friend of my daughter’s started accusing the Conservatives of using this verbal device to communicate any number of nefarious and outrageous messages.

Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it: “[In politics], an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.”

Here’s my translation: a dog whistle is believed by some to be a secret coded language used to pass on ideas meaning the opposite of those being spoken. Labeling an opponent’s words as a “dog whistle” is used to justify the opinion that the listener doesn’t trust or believe what is being stated.

In other words, it’s a convenient way to call someone a liar or to completely discount what they tell you if you don’t like what the other person is saying to you. Simply dismissing their words by calling them a “dog whistle” and attaching a list of motives, without even having an obviously offensive or libelous word to point to, now suffices. That way, you never have to believe anything you hear from someone you don’t like. 

The irony is not lost on me. “Dog whistle” is itself coded language to accuse someone else of using coded language. It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Now we come to how this is used. Take, for example, the case of Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre: how are people coming to believe the litany of nasty motives attributed to him?

Here’s how a reader of the Welland Tribune, a respected 161-year-old newspaper, put it in their Letters to the Editor page

By definition, a dog whistle is the use of code or suggestive language in political messaging. Poilievre is becoming a master at the art of using this tactic to garner support from particular groups. It is language that appears normal to the majority of people but communicates specific things to intended audiences. It is generally used to convey messages on controversial topics without attracting negative attention.

Justin Trudeau has even accused Poilievre of trafficking in them. 

I initially thought I was missing something, so I went online to find out where these accusations were coming from, what I had overlooked, or what he was supposed to have said or done. Instead, I found nothing except reports attributing various motives to Poilievre, based on interpretations of what the writers called “dog whistles.”

Here are a few of the “terrible” and “reprehensible” phrases he supposedly uses to hide his true motives: “common sense agenda,” “axe the tax,” “fiscal responsibility,” “parental rights,” and “globalism.” I am sure there are plenty of others just as “bad.”

This is not to say that the concept is completely meaningless. There are, in fact, examples of dog whistles being deployed by terrible people for nefarious ends. But tarring a mainstream political opponent with that brush should require more evidence than is being offered here. 

Among the accusations is this one: Poilievre posted a tweet expressing condolences for the families and colleagues of two police officers who were killed in the line of duty in Edmonton in March 2023. It was accompanied by an image of the Edmonton police crest, with a thin blue line across it, meant to symbolize police solidarity and honour fallen officers. It is a symbol of the line officers walk between life and death while serving, and can be traced back to the 1920s.

The symbol had apparently been largely abandoned over the past few years following the Black Lives Matter protests when the thin blue line came to be viewed by some as racist, with some purporting it actually represented the division between Black people and white (presumably) police officers. The symbol was subsequently co-opted by some extremist groups, meaning that for some, this irredeemably morphed any representation of the thin blue line into a symbol of white supremacy, pushing some police forces to ban its wearing on uniforms. Therefore, according to this winding narrative, Poilievre’s condolences to two dead police officers were a dog whistle, secretly sending a racist statement to his followers.

Really? It appears that no one questions the logic of these statements, never mind their absurdity. It is stated, therefore it is true. 

Back The Blue supporters aligned with President Donald Trump get pushed out from a Black Lives Matter gathering to defund the police, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Paula Bronstein/AP Photo.

Another example: two slogans Poilievre has used in the past—“Reclaim what has always been yours” and “Take back control”—have been cited as dog-whistling, anti-immigrant messages. However, his track record would suggest the more likely explanation is he is simply promoting less government interference in Canadian lives.

When Poilievre criticizes the World Economic Forum and the “Davos elites,” is he truly intending to signal his coded commitment to disturbing antisemitic conspiracies, or is he instead pushing back against anti-democratic elites seeking to override local government rule? To be sure, if the former, then he should be vigorously condemned for it. But again we must look to his overall track record, and I would suggest his staunch and steadfast support for Israel belies the true nature of his intentions here. 

He has also been accused of dog whistling to white supremacists for saying, “I’m a believer in using simple Anglo-Saxon words that strike right at the meaning that I’m trying to convey.” Again, just because some ideologues have co-opted something for their fringe ideology does not mean the phrase or concept should be considered always and irredeemably offensive. Preferring clear, common speech—as any politician should!—does not an automatic white supremacist make.

Many ostensibly sensible people believe otherwise, including former prime minister Kim Campbell, who recently called the Conservative leader a “hate monger.” Wherever did she get her outlandish opinion? It certainly did not come from his record.

After an extensive online and Hansard search,  I have yet to find any of the extreme views Poilievre is said to have, or anything in his background that would indicate that he might hold hateful views. 

I have used Poilievre to illustrate this dog whistle phenomenon, but the real issue is the manipulation of public and private opinion using such a cheap and shoddy device. How can so many fall for it, irony and all?

That Poilievre holds views opposed to those of the woke Left is undeniable. But given that he apparently now shares those views with a very large and growing number of Canadians, his political opponents would be wise to find a new tactic with which to take him down. Sure, he would be easier to drive from the public arena if he really was a racist hate-monger, but the actual evidence for that case is non-existent. My suggestion? Try grappling with his actual words, his plain-stated policies and positions, if you wish to have any hope of defeating him.

Douglas Porter: New job numbers are another alarm bell for Canada’s economy

Commentary

This excerpt was originally published at BMO.

We have been going on, and on, for nearly a year about the growing divergence between the North American economies—a surprising/amazingly resilient U.S. set against a struggling Canada. Just as there were some indications the gap may be narrowing in early 2024, the March employment reports put an exclamation point on the wedge. Last month saw the U.S. churn out yet another chart-topping payroll gain of 303,000, clipping the unemployment rate to 3.8 percent.

In the meantime, Canada saw a full eclipse of the jobs, with a 2,200 drop, sending the unemployment rate up 3 ticks to 6.1 percent. That 2.3 percentage point divide between the jobless rates is at the very upper end of the range over the past twenty years, aside from the madness of the pandemic. This simply reinforces our conviction that the Bank of Canada will be leading the Fed on the rate-cut front, just as it led on the way up the hill two years ago.

Markets have been steadily reeling back expectations of Fed rate cuts almost since the year began, and recent events pulled the string a bit further. While Chair Powell sent soothing tones in a speech last week, suggesting the bigger picture had not changed, the freshly converted uber-hawk Kashkari opined that perhaps no rate cuts were needed at all this year. With job growth still chugging along, GDP on track for at least a 2 percent advance in Q1, the factory PMI pushing back above 50, and now oil prices at $87 threatening to lift headline inflation again, it’s not obvious that he’s out of line. We remain entirely comfortable with our call that the Fed will wait until July to start the rate cuts. After bravely staring down fading prospects of rate relief through Q1, equities showed a flicker of concern this week, with the S&P 500 dropping roughly 1 percent from the recent record high.

It is a very different post-jobs conversation in Canada. Full disclosure, there has been some wavering on our call for a June cut by the Bank of Canada, especially in light of a run of surprisingly sturdy GDP growth to start 2024, as well as solid financial markets, a stabilizing housing market, and fading Fed rate cut prospects. Standing against that, the two main pillars of support for our relatively dovish call on the BoC were low inflation and rising unemployment. The past two CPI reports have been stunningly helpful, with ex-shelter inflation dropping to a mere 1.3 percent y/y. But the snapback in oil and sticky wage growth of around 5 percent could frustrate further progress, and threaten to keep inflation expectations firm.

Against that backdrop, the steep rise in the unemployment rate last month is an important development, as it suggests that wage trends will eventually ebb. In fact, with the jobless rate pushing above 6 percent, one can make the case that the labour market is no longer tight in Canada. One rule of thumb we watch is the year-over-year change in the number of unemployed people. Over the past 40 years, in both Canada and the U.S., any time it has risen by 25 percent or more, the economy has been in recession (Chart 1). (Note that Canada didn’t quite get there in the 2000/01 cycle, and that period was not judged to be a recession by the semi-official arbiters of such.) The back-up in March left the number of unemployed Canadians up 23 percent year-over-year, right at the edge. In stark contrast, the same metric shows a rise of less than 10 percent for the U.S. economy, reinforcing North America’s wide divergence. A rather obvious rejoinder is that the surge in Canada is driven by smoking population trends, and can’t be readily compared with the past.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

We won’t need to wait long to find out exactly how the Bank of Canada views these conflicting trends, with the rate decision and MPR on Wednesday. While there’s not much debate that the Bank will hold rates steady again at 5 percent, there’s a lot of debate over just how dovish they will sound. Even with a moderate upgrade in the 2024 growth outlook (the BoC was previously at 0.8 percent, we’re now at 1.2 percent), inflation is nicely tracking below their estimate of 3.2 percent for Q1 (likely 2.9 percent), so we look for the Bank to open the door a crack for coming rate cuts.

Just prior to the BoC announcement, the U.S. CPI is likely to flag a small warning on the impact of higher oil prices, with headline inflation rising a couple ticks to 3.4 percent, even as core is expected to dip to 3.7 percent (both on monthly increases of 0.3 percent). That energy-led uptick could be mirrored in Canada’s CPI the following week, albeit holding below 3 percent. For both the job market and inflation, Canada is showing some separation from the U.S., and we suspect that will drive a small separation between BoC and Fed rate policy in coming months.

This excerpt was originally published at BMO.