Monday, July 5, 2010

The language of deception

It's been a week and a half since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in what was, contrary to much of the hostile commentary and despite the involvement of certain less than savoury characters, an orderly takeover from a PM who couldn't even muster enough numbers to make a show of meeting a challenge, and who was, as all who have read Robert Manne's detailed analysis in the current issue of The Monthly will be aware, in a state of deepening crisis before Gillard's challenge.

All the same, Gillard was accused on many if not all sides of 'stabbing Rudd in the back'.

In that week and a half I've been seeing a great deal of anti-Gillard commentary from people who until two weeks ago were her biggest fans. Obviously they wanted her in charge until she actually took charge, and frankly I think that's a bit suspicious in itself. Now that she has made her position clearer on asylum seekers, and believe me I'm not super thrilled about it either (despite the fact that I think she may actually be doing something else, something we haven't seen from federal politicians before), she's getting some hysterically abusive flak around the traps for what people are calling 'dog-whistling'.

I have my own theories about why some people are so emotional about Gillard and I'm not going to air them here, but as is my wont I'd like to focus on the vocabulary that's being thrown around. First of all, 'backstabbing', which implies sneaky, underhanded deception and creeping up on people who trust you, when they're not looking.

How was it backstabbing? Gillard did not go behind Rudd's back at any point. She has always been his obvious successor. He obviously did not trust her or anyone else; indeed he was so paranoid and untrusting that she had to learn from reading the paper that her (up to that point repeatedly tested and demonstrably iron-clad) loyalty had been questioned and checked up on by Rudd's confidante and golden boy chief of staff Alister Jordan, which hardly suggests that Rudd was 'not looking'. When Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib et al urged her to challenge Rudd for the leadership, she insisted that proper open soundings be taken on the Caucus numbers. She openly challenged Rudd for the leadership, and she won.

So say she stabbed him if you must, but if she stabbed him at all, she stabbed him in the chest.  There may have been ruthlessness, but there was no deception.

And as for 'dog-whistle' -- I'm starting to wonder whether city folks actually understand this metaphor. A dog-whistle is a thing that humans beings can't hear, sounding at a frequency that only dogs can hear. It was used during the Howard era to describe coded remarks that looked innocent of sinister meanings but could be picked up by Howard's natural constituency because their ears were attuned to his real meaning and it was what they wanted to hear.

But Gillard is saying exactly what she means. You may not like it. You may be outraged that other citizens of the country who don't agree with you should have their right to free speech affirmed, however unpleasant one may find what they say. And you may, like me, be particularly irritated by Gillard's use of the phrase 'political correctness', which long ago became something that could only ever muddy the waters of meaning. But again, there is no deception. It's not a dog-whistle. It's a whistle.


Armagny said...

Hysterical is a very loaded word as you know. I'm not hysterical about the issue, I'm disgusted. Hysterical is treating a handful of creaky boats as a national security threat.

Apart from that, on dog-whistling vs whistling, you may be right. But if that's what she really thinks it certainly doesn't do her any credit.

I'll happily judge her on her policy. Apparently it's close. As I've suggested at mine, if it turns out she's just trying to acknowledge 'the people's concerns before doing something balanced and humane, then, well, I might not like the tone of it much but I'll gladly suck it up. There's far more at stake here than just words, assertions and pure principle.

I still hold out hope. But I'm not going to leave her on some honeymoon if she moves to the right.

cristy said...

It certainly isn't dog-whistling. I agree. I also don't get the back-stabbing stuff. I can't see why any deputy owes their leader any loyalty when they are not performing well and when they believe they could do a better job.

However, it is dishonest to pretend that the asylum seeker debate has been shut down previously by 'political correctness'.

It is also dishonest to pretend that intolerance and racist doesn't play a role in the debate.

Finally, it is lazy and unprincipled not to take a leadership role on this issue by challenging some of the rhetoric that completely misrepresents the numbers of 'boat people' and their (lack of) choices in relation to joining some imaginary queue or stopping in another country along the way.

I don't think that I'm refusing anyone's 'right of free speech' when I argue that the government shouldn't be pandering to these kinds of views or when I challenge the factual basis (and values) that underlie may of them.

Anonymous said...

I think there is middle ground between pandering and writing off all objections as racist, neither of which approaches are productive IMO. I also believe that Gillard may be trying to operate in that middle ground in order to bring the people with her, but if I am wrong I will be no more nor less disappointed that I have been with the Rudd government on this issue because I don't expect her to be a paragon of virtues not yet seen in a PM.


Armagny said...

Su I hold the same hope, but if the policy lurches to the right will you really be no more disappointed?

I could certainly be pragmatic enough to accept that she is not in a position to take some positive step in the short term- that WOULD be expecting of her that which Rudd did not produce.

Which I'll concede in a fraught election campaign could not be expected.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Armagny, I've seen quite a lot of response, around the traps as I say, that I would, actually, characterise as hysterical. In the old blogosphere saying, if it's not about you then it's not about you. And I agree absolutely that one should wait and see.

Cristy, I also agree with you and Julian Burnside that Gillard could and should address the rhetoric and be clear about the numbers. Again, she may yet, we don't know. I hope she does. We know from her very first interview as PM with Kerry O'Brien that she is very good at challenging other people's use of emotive or otherwise connotative language when talking about facts.

I will be no more nor less disappointed that I have been with the Rudd government on this issue because I don't expect her to be a paragon of virtues not yet seen in a PM.


Tim said...

Once again I find myself agreeing with you Kerryn. All of it. These various reactions to Gillard are disconcerting. Hope you don't mind a few links to similar thoughts:

cristy said...

Yes, I'll accept that I am perhaps being prematurely cynical. It has nothing to do with Gillard though. I've been cynical about Labor and asylum seekers since Beazley joined in on the Tampa nastiness.

Anonymous said...

@Armagny: I doubt her measures will be anything so straightforward as a lurch to the right. I think it is more likely to be a mixture. If she lifts the current suspension of processing for eg that would be a good thing IMO, as that kind of crude disincentive represented the very nadir of refugee policy under the previous PM.


Mitzi G Burger said...

Isn't it so sad? A Prime Minister asking for our gripes and complaints about asylum seekrs, not asking how we want to help them.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of heat being generated at present, and as PC says that's a lot to do with the suddenness of her succession. I agree that her hand was forced, but it may be for the better anyway.

And I'm prepared to sit tight on the asylum seekers issue. That is not to deny that it is a parochial disgrace the way they continue to be treated when their actual effect on our community is minimal.

I'm guessing that she's aiming to separate the two issues:Border Protection (and the implications for our security and national integrity) and Refugee Asylum Seekers.

Howard's strategy quite deliberately and misleadingly glued them into one issue, and the Liberals have been trying to reraise it on the same basis.

That is why all Gillard's statements to this point have been about her concern (and hearing the public concern) for Border Security.

It should be remembered that as a Shadow Minister she successfully defused it as a wedge issue, and it was a lot hotter topic than now. And she got Ruddock on the Cash for Visas into the bargain.

If she's successful in this separation it will die as a hot topic, and she can then address the issue of a bit less bastardry to asylum seekers. Give her a bit of time. I think she's defused the miners' campaign already.


Lucytartan said...

I wasn't as offended by Gillard saying that people are understandably anxious at the sight of boats on the horizon as many people have been, though probably I'm still honeymooning and thus inclined to look for the best light to see things in. I think that we do urgently need to lift the level of public discussion on asylum seekers and to make deep changes to the way people who are afraid understand what is happening. That sort of change can't happen if indeed such people are harangued, treated as ifmtheyre stupid, or shouted down, and I don't want Gillard to do that. You don't invite people to change their minds by leading off with telling them they are racist and xenophobic.

cristy said...

"You don't invite people to change their minds by leading off with telling them they are racist and xenophobic."

That's a good point. I really hope that my cynicism is totally wrong and this is the beginning of a positive development. I'll be (among) the first to sing their praises if that is, indeed, what happens.

lucytartan said...

ALP history would suggest I'm clutching at straws, though, Cristy.

cristy said...

Sadly true...

Still digesting Lowy speech.

Continued suspension of Afghanis unjustifiable (and illegal).

I'm also not really sold on any form of off-shore processing, but regional and UN cooperation may be a good thing. Will have to see detail.

Anonymous said...

Heard the speech ... excellent. Liked the references to Lowy, a Holocaust/WWII refugee, and to migration generally through her own family bringing it together on fairness.

Second bomb successfully defused. A relatively humane approach while answering the concerns about boat arrivals.

Again the Liberals left with nowhere to go. Heard McConnell or whatever his name is (Lib Immigration spokesman) trying to nitpick about what she's said in 2002, while ignoring her key point that no boats have been turned back since 2003. Hello ?? The Libs will have to find another demonising dog whistle with People Smugglers taken out of the equation. Game over on race politics for the time being at least.

On my reading of it, Brown of the Greens can't get much mileage out of it either.

Well done, Julia


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Don, this sounds very promising. There's bound to be some bad spin that can be put on it and if there is then I'm sure certain elements will find it, but I like your account. It sounds to me as if Gillard's general plan so far is grounded in some sort of anti-wedge strategy, which would be all to the good.

seepi said...

If Julia turns out to be just as disappointing as Rudd then what is the point???

and thanks for explaining the dog whistle. I had a nebulous idea that it had to do with sending out your message, and letting someone else bring back the dim majority (sheep).

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

Some people have higher expectations of Gillard because she is a woman, and then get angry when those are disappointed. However, for other people the expectations are around the fact that she is notionally part of the "left".

I've never had the slightest illusions on the latter point. The subsection of the left she is from contains among its main players Martin Ferguson (who said that supporting refugees was a racist act) and Michael O'Connor - organiser of the rally of timber workers cheering on Howard in 2004. Both are almost certainly climate change deniers.

Gillard may yet prove better than her friends, but lets just say any illusions I'm starting with are not of the favourable kind.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I would certainly agree that a big part of the demonisation that started almost before she had calmly taken power from Rudd's increasingly unsteady hands is to do with people having projected various unrealistic expectations onto her and then blaming her for not meeting them. But I'd better be careful, lest I be branded an 'armchair psychologist' (though not by you, FS, I think). There was a lovely moment at LP recently when someone used that expression and someone else asked whether there was any other kind of psychologist. Heh.