The Dog Whistle

By skepticlawyer

I am not going to link to anyone making ‘dog whistling’ claims this election campaign; there are too many of them. Instead, I am going to make a few requests.

1. Before using this phrase, please take some care to find out what it means.

2. When claiming that this or that politician is ‘dog whistling’, understand and appreciate that your claim is a large one, involving — among other things — an insight into a given individual’s motives. Figuring out other people’s motives is difficult, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with a major criminal trial can tell you. Unless you are psychic or a Supreme Court judge about to deliver your summing up to the jury, stop it.

3. Remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Tony Abbott has always portrayed himself as a family man, including when he was up against equally big family man Kevin Rudd. He even did the family man schtick when John Howard was PM, for goodness’ sakes. Similarly, Julia Gillard has never made a habit of parading her partner around the place; he’s only ever popped up occasionally. Reading some sort of dog whistle into Abbott’s ‘familism’ and Gillard’s lack thereof involves ascribing a degree of manipulativeness to a pair of fairly standard pollies that would do credit to Josef Goebbels. Stop it.

4. Elections may be fun, but statistically, a single vote is close to meaningless (scroll down for data); worrying about dog whistles ‘getting through’ to the general public is a bit like trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. If you must vote (and in Australia, you must), then make sure you do so for the right reasons; here is the Undercover Economist, Tim Harford:

For this reason, nobody votes hoping that his vote will change the outcome. We vote instead because we like to feel involved, out of a sense of duty, or – importantly – to avoid being criticised by our friends and loved ones. These motives are enough to get about half of us out to the polls, but not enough to persuade us to engage in pointless research into the details of each candidate’s policy platform. All of which explains why many people vote, but few do so in an informed fashion.


  1. Posted July 29, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    There’s always the difference when voting contrary to a major party’s ticket – the dollar difference in public funding /next/ time.

    Voting 1 for an inoffensive candidate unlikely to win and later the major of your choice, and doing this especially in the senate below the line, can make a small, but collectively palpable hit against the machines, maybe enough to trim the advertising budget, but then, maybe enough to make the majors do more underhanded deals with donors.

    I’m expecting more people to vote below the line in the senate, putting conroy very low, and minimizing the effect of interparty deals like the anti-green deal the ALP did that got Fielding in with buggerall of a quota. (Preferential above the line voting would be a good balance of efficiency versus expressibility)

    I suppose such considerations make the Oz voting systems preferable to many overseas models – a vote against the majority in your electorate can still have an effect, albeit a tiny one.

  2. Patrick
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I always vote below the line just for those reasons.

  3. Posted July 29, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree LE and SL, and on that last point regarding press responsibility – the depressing thing is that it gets harder and harder to discuss matters outside of the politicians/press dynamic. They by and large get to decide on the language and choose the rhetoric to use.

  4. Peter Patton
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Given that those who accuse others of canine-calling claim to hear the call themselves, what does this tell us about them? 😉

  5. Posted July 29, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Well, quite, Peter.

    With regard to the media, Marcellous is right, but I don’t have any solutions, apart from waiting until the conventional media collapses thanks to lack of advertising revenue.

  6. Patrick
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    There is a critical first step, SL, applicable to too many readers of this blog – stop buying the shit and stop reading the bloody Age’s website!

  7. Posted August 4, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Helen, your letters are coming back RTS. Can you advise new details please?

  8. Melaleuca
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I mostly agree with you , SL. The constant accusations from feminists and lefties that conservative politicians doing what comes naturally to them are actually engaged in “dog whistling” has become really tedious.

    But still, I think it’s sometimes reasonable to ponder people’s motivations and this is a case in point. I suspect many who continually trot out the “dog whistling” accusation are “barrackers”; they are cheering their side on and jeering at the opposition without being overly concerned about truthfulness.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dog, John Hacking. John Hacking said: The Dog Whistle: I am not going to link to anyone making ‘dog whistling’ claims this election campaign; there are … […]

  2. By Maybe this explains it « Homepaddock on August 1, 2010 at 3:01 am

    […] Tip: Skeptic Lawyer for the quote from the Undercover […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *