Terry Milewski: With a week left, there's still time for more nonsense

There's one more week to go, and the moment has arrived for last-ditch, emotional appeals. And as Australian campaign guru Lynton Crosby once noted, "in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins."
Did she hear a whistle? Copper the dog attends a rally for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in Toronto earlier in the campaign. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"I don't think people vote for policies… But they do vote for what policies say about a candidate or a party and their values and their beliefs." — Lynton Crosby

It is unclear whether we owe the hullabaloo about veils and barbaric cultural practices to the so-called "Wizard of Oz" Lynton Crosby.

Plainly, the legendary Australian campaign guru is not responsible for the Conservative Party's strategy — Stephen Harper is. Crosby was a latecomer to the Conservative campaign and the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act was passed in July, long before his arrival.

Likewise, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's edict that thou shalt not wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony went forth in 2011. Can't lay that at Lynton Crosby's door.

Still, Crosby does have a famously winning record with hard-edged campaigns — for John Howard, elected four times as prime minister of Australia, for British Prime Minister David Cameron and for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. 

And Crosby did make his appearance in Canada's campaign before the recent ratcheting-up of the Conservatives' jihad against alien customs.

Culture and barbarism

One key feature of this escalation was a promised "tip line," whereby Canadians could report "barbaric cultural practices" like so-called "honour" killings. Perhaps this appealed to some voters, but since killings are already crimes, it's hard to see what prevents Canadians reporting them anyway. So the new tip line — its number unknown — seems unlikely to replace the number that everyone already knows to call: 911. 

Jon Keefe voted in St. John's while dressed as a mummer. He did so to protest the hype over the niqab debate, which he thinks is a 'non-issue.' (Submitted by Jon Keefe)

Seriously, hearing the screams next door, will you pause to consider whether the cause might be cultural, and then try to find the special number — instead of just calling the cops right now?

On the other hand, the snitch line does have obvious utility as a campaign tactic. It's not a tempting option to campaign hard against a crackdown on barbarism. And, by Crosby's expert account, folks may not care whether the policy makes any sense, as long as it makes clear that you stand four-square against men murdering their wives and daughters if they step out of line. 

And you know whose "cultural practices" those might be.

Another late addition to the Conservative repertoire was the endorsement of the Quebec government's plan to ban the niqab in the public service. Again, since there is no known case of a federal civil servant wanting or trying to wear a niqab on the job, the policy seems more likely to send a message to the faithful than to plug a gaping hole in the nation's defences.

But go ahead! Campaign for the right of non-existent public officials to wear veils!

The closer you look, then, the easier it is to see what Crosby meant when he told a group of British students that it's not the policy, it's what it says about you and your "values."

Blowing the whistle

More crudely, this kind of messaging is often called "dog-whistle" politics — meaning, a not-so-subtle appeal to prejudice. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, in fact, has accused Stephen Harper of "playing the race card" — as though Muslims were a race. 

Plainly, they are not. Nor have the Conservatives singled out the religion of Islam, as opposed to certain practices of a small minority of Muslims with an extreme view of what their religion requires.

The Conservatives are, however, being inconsistent. For one thing, they are determined to cancel the citizenship of convicted terrorists who have even a theoretical claim on some other citizenship. So far, though, this only seems to apply to Muslims.

The government has never attempted to deprive Inderjit Singh Reyat — convicted three times in the worst terrorist atrocity in Canada's history — of his Canadian passport, although he's certainly eligible for an Indian one. He's a Sikh, born in Jhander, Punjab, who moved to B.C. and built the bombs that blew up Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

Another difficulty is the wide range of mainly Muslim practices that are in the governing party's gunsights. "Honour killings," for example — absurdly named because there's nothing honourable about them — nevertheless surely qualify as barbaric cultural practices.

But how barbaric is Zunera Ishaq? She says that her niqab is a "religious duty" and that this led her to challenge the government's attempt to deny her the right to take the oath of citizenship. She seemed tickled pink to finally take the oath, having won her case in the Federal Court. What's more, the government's claims that there was some issue about revealing her identity proved hollow, since she readily unveiled in private to do just that.

On the other hand, there's just as much hokum in her own arguments as in those of the government. She, and many of her defenders, have hastily raised the banner of "religious freedom" — but have yet to contend with the absence of any "religious" basis in the Qur'an for wearing the niqab.

There isn't one. Kenney may have been wrong, as the Federal Court ruled, to think that he could forbid Ishaq by a ministerial fatwa to wear it. But when he argued that the veil was rooted in a "medieval," tribal custom, he was correct — and, if he wasn't, then the vast majority of Muslim women around the globe are acting like infidels.

Many Muslim countries go further than Kenney — in fact, any woman trying to vote in Egypt's upcoming election while wearing a niqab will be turned away by Muslim officials. 

Nonsense galore

So it makes little sense to pretend that those who find the niqab creepy, anti-social and oppressive are somehow guilty of "prejudice" or "Islamophobia." What's Islamic about it?

Equally, it's impossible to argue that the Ishaq court case was a vindication of her religious freedom. The ruling had nothing to do with whether the niqab was a religious requirement or not. The Supreme Court may ruminate on that, some other day. 

To date, though, the case has turned solely on the issue of whether the law, which gives judges the greatest possible latitude in administering the oath, could be amended on Jason Kenney's say-so. The Federal Court said, no. Besides that, it threw out the hapless government lawyer's argument that Kenney didn't really mean it. 

In short, there's plenty of nonsense on all sides of this imbroglio. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called Harper's campaign "disgusting" on the grounds that PMO staff allegedly cherry-picked Syrian refugees for their usefulness in photo ops.

There's no evidence of that, but hey, it's not the campaign, it's what it says about you. And Harper's own hyperbole reached maximum thrust when he accused both Trudeau and Mulcair of wanting to bring in "hundreds of thousands" of refugees without any security checks "whatsoever." Nope, no evidence for that, either — and plenty of voters just heard a dog whistle.

Still, there's one more week to go, so there's still time for much more of this. The moment has arrived for last-ditch, emotional appeals. And, as Lynton Crosby noted in another piece of sage advice, "in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins."


  • A caption in an earlier version of this story identified the dog in the lead photo as Topper and pondered whether "he" heard a whistle in this election campaign. The dog's name is Copper, not Topper, and she's a she, not a he.
    Oct 12, 2015 5:24 PM ET


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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