What do voters hear in Conservatives' message on refugees?

Often times when a politician is speaking, you need to read between the lines to find what they are really saying. That's often most important when the topic is race or religion.

Party has brought in Lynton Crosby, known by some as the 'master of dog whistle politics'

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper takes questions from the media during a campaign stop in Welland, Ont. Supporters from the crowd heckled reporters when they asked Harper about the Syrian refugee crisis. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On the day Canadians were confronted by images of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy lying face down on a faraway beach, the tragedy and horror of what's been unfolding in that part of the world seemed all the closer.

"We could drive ourselves crazy with grief," said Stephen Harper, as he assured voters he would not.

"Our message has been the same all along," the Conservative leader said. "We are admitting more refugees and we will — we promised that earlier in the campaign."

Harper's new commitment, made at the outset of the campaign, was contingent on his party winning re-election. In recent days, he has hinted more may be done.

A photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned when a boat of Syrian migrants capsized off the Turkish coast, brought pressure on federal leaders to promise to do more to ease the refugee crisis. (The Associated Press)

But he has maintained that the desire to do more would be balanced by security concerns, and has said airlifts would not be considered.

There have been some clues as to why Harper's approach seems so deliberate, not the least of which is an Ekos poll, released Friday, indicating fully a third of Conservative party supporters believe the country is taking in too many refugees as it is.

Only 12 per cent of those who say they intend to vote for Harper's party believe he should be doing more.

A view from Down Under

"It's important in a campaign ... to understand who your base is and lock them in first."

Those words were spoken by a man named Lynton Crosby, during a presentation to a UK-based political organization in late 2013.

A master political strategist from Australia, Crosby is renowned for helping conservative parties get into power both in his country of Australia and in the UK.

"If you just go hunting for the swing [voters], the people who could change their mind to come to you, and you haven't secured your base — motivated them to come out and so forth," Crosby cautioned his class, "then you are likely to not be successful."

We learned this week that Crosby is now formally part of the Conservative Party of Canada's campaign team, although campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke said Crosby has "had a relationship with us [the Conservative party] for a long time."

Conservative candidates have suggested Harper's approach to refugee crisis is indeed "hardening" the vote for the party.

Bal Gosal, the Conservative candidate for Brampton-Centre, put it flatly to the Toronto Star recently, saying the people of his riding "don't want them. The majority of people don't want [the Syrian refugees]."

How to satisfy that impulse in the voters who make up the core of Conservative support while adapting to a situation that demands for a public response calls for the kind of subtlety Crosby is known for.

Marketing the message

Some have called Crosby a master of "dog-whistle politics," a form of wedge politics where those running for office hit certain rhetorical notes that go largely unnoticed, except by their intended audience.

Ian Haney-Lopez is the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at University of California, Berkeley and has written extensively about the tactics in his country. He argues those tactics can have racial undertones.

"They don't specifically try to evoke a sort of white-panic about changing demographics," he explains. "But just underneath, there are clearly racist images associated with terms like Muslim refugee, Syrian refugee, illegal alien."

It can be as subtle as a rhetorical question.

In 2005, Crosby helped the UK Conservative party in its campaign which largely focused on tightening immigration policy.

The party's campaign slogan, which appeared on billboards calling for limits on immigration, was "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"

An example of controversial UK Conservative campaign poster with the slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" (UK Conservative party)

Subtle or not, that message didn't seem to help, as the UK Conservatives went on to lose that election.

Haney-Lopez says dog-whistle politics has been around for a long time, although only got its moniker in the 1990s — christened so by Crosby, according to some.

And he sees the technique being used in Canada.

"There are these deep anxieties in Canada, in the United States, about changing demographics, changing populations, people who are different," he says. "And the question is: how are political leaders dealing with those anxieties?"

Canada's refugee response

The campaign promise Harper continues to tout is for 10,000 additional refugees, but there are caveats.

The spots are reserved for "persecuted ethnic and religious minorities from the region."

In a region dominated by Shia and Sunni Muslims, that language has been seen to deliberately mean prioritizing the region's Christians over Muslims.

Both the NDP and the Liberals have accused the Conservatives of "religious discrimination," on how it is sorting refugees.

"To suggest we (the government) are only going to focus on one group of people is categorically false," Costas Menegakis, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, told the House of Commons last December.

"That said," he continued, "we will prioritize ethnic and religious minorities, those at demonstrated risk, and we make no apologies for that."

The facts are that, aside from Harper's August promise to for an additional 10,000 Iraqis and Syrians over the next four years, Canada is actually not taking in any additional refugees so far.

An earlier government pledge, in January, to accept 10,000 Syrians by 2017 comes out of the usual annual allotment for refugees.

Canada will take fewer people fleeing from conflict in other parts of the world to give their spots to Syrians.

Refugees sorted by religion

The further subdividing of Syrian refugees to prioritize "persecuted ethnic and religious minorities" can only make an already slow and burdensome process all the more so.

"Our focus is on the most vulnerable refugees who are often in a more difficult spot and harder to reach," Conservative Jason Kenney conceded this weekend on CBC Radio's The House.

But those are just rational arguments.

"The key is to craft messages that trigger fears but are not themselves explicit about the sorts of fears they are trying to trigger," is the way Haney-Lopez explains this type of messaging.

Crosby phrases it slightly differently: "You can have a rational argument, you can have a rational position, but unless you make an emotional connection, you will rarely succeed," he says in the 2013 video.

Last March, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the Conservatives of "using dog-whistle politics," to stir up anti-Muslim sentiments in the debate over anti-terrorism legislation.

However, when asked on Friday if Crosby's arrival on the scene could mean an increased use of the technique, Trudeau side-stepped.

"I'm not going to comment on my opponent's campaign and approach," he told reporters.

Haney-Lopez suggests that's the wrong answer.

"People don't realize they are being manipulated, they don't realize their basest instincts are being appealed to," he says. "Staying silent and not addressing that is an absolute failure."

Of course, calling out a dog whistle doesn't necessarily negate its effect.

As Crosby himself teaches, in the battle of reason over emotion in voters' minds, reason barely stands a fighting chance.


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