The dead cat on the 2015 campaign trail -

The dead cat on the 2015 campaign trail

Stephen Harper’s campaign was floundering, until he threw something on the table that changed everything

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to supporters during a rally in Montreal, Quebec, Canada August 2, 2015. Harper on Sunday called a parliamentary election for Oct 19, kicking off a marathon 11-week campaign, the longest federal election campaign in recent history. The sign reads: "Justin (Trudeau) not ready". (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

I didn’t really appreciate the power of the “dead cat” strategy until now, as the niqab issue explodes and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s polling numbers keep going up. But since the “dead cat” threatens to transform the election, certainly in Quebec, it’s worth a second look.

It first blipped on my political radar screen in early September when Harper hired the “Wizard of Oz,” Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby. Crosby is well known in political circles for helping people such as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, but he’d been accused of dangerous “dog whistle” politics to secure the wins. The Globe and Mail’s Tu Thanh Ha wrote an excellent piece on Crosby, and that’s where I first heard about the whole “dead cat” thing.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, our election was then focused on other issues, such as Mike Duffy,  child care and the economy. Not dead cats.

But then something changed. The Syrian refugee crisis spilled into the campaign after that tragic picture of young boy Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beach, went viral. Harper accused the other leaders of wanting to throw open our borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees, without security checks. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called it blatant fear-mongering. I wrote a column called “Bring on the endgame,” in which I argued that the response to the crisis had sparked a culture war, unleashing dangerous “animal spirits.” I was riffing on John Maynard Keynes’s use of the term “animal spirits,” his economic description of irrational, emotional behaviour. I never thought the animal spirits came from a dead cat. It looks like as though they do.

“This is it; the whole dead-cat theory is working,” my radio show producer Peter Harris said this morning, as we prepared to cover the French-language debate. In the article on Crosby, the Globe describes him as the master of the dark arts of politics, especially proficient in finding issues that voters suddenly seize upon and that turn around a flagging campaign. When he worked for John Howard, the former Australian prime minister, Crosby pioneered the slogan, “We decide who comes into this country,” playing on fears of immigration, and who should be a citizen. Starting to sound familiar? And that’s where the “dead cat strategy” came up.

In 2013, Johnson wrote a piece in the Telegraph about campaign tactics he learned  from his “Australian friend”—Crosby. It’s worth reading the entire excerpt here: “Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and, the more people focus on the reality, the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.’

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

So there it is. The dead cat.

Harper’s campaign was floundering from Duffy to the second recession. The change wave threated to drown him. And instead of a life jacket, his Australian friend threw him something better: a dead cat. The niqab issue. It’s all anyone can talk about. It fits perfectly into his agenda of security and fear of change. The NDP, which was once riding high on polls that showed Quebecers were ready to turf Harper, have whiplash. It has lost control of the agenda. It’s all niqab, all the time.

It may be dangerous, or “dog whistle politics,” as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told me. But clearly, it works. And at least we know how to identify that animal spirit on the loose across the country. It’s a dead cat.


The dead cat on the 2015 campaign trail

  1. Your dead cat is nothing but a smelly red herring. Is the woman demanding to wear her niqab during the citizenship oath in cahoots with Crosby & Harper, then? Was the court ruling dismissing the feds’ appeal timed to help the Conservatives’ campaign? So much for your dead cat theory.

    Chantal Hébert boxed Andrew Coyne’s ears during an At Issue discussion. The latter thought the niqab issue was taking too much space & Chantal counters that it’s an issue that’s of interest to Quebec AND the ROC. Just because you and Andrew don’t consider it an important issue doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. Watch it here at about the 6:50 mark.

    • Thank you for posting that video. I didn’t catch Chantal’s comment on the issues that matter to Canadians not being decided in the boardrooms of Toronto. Absolutely love that line!

      • Doh! Typo! Didn’t catch Chantal’s comment when I watched the panel live.

    • The niqab court decision was a bit of fortuitous timing. I don’t doubt they would have found a way to trot it out, but the court decision made it easier to work into their campaign. C-24 and the timing of stripping citizenships was a more carefully planned long game. “Old stock”; “those people”; now the snitch line.

      This lowest-common-denominator sleazefest has been planned for some time. I’ve gotten to the point where there’s nothing low enough that I’d be surprised if Harper tried it. I am supremely disappointed that there are enough Canadians willing to follow him there that his numbers are getting a boost.

      Are we really going to give Harper a mandate to run roughshod over visible minorities?

    • Seeing as most the radicalized Muslims seem to be from Quebec, I would say that Quebec has a failed strategy. Tell people they can’t do something and you know what the want to do… they fight to do it because they feel persecuted. You’re much better off to say “knock yourself out. wear a “who farted teeshirt if you want.”

      The niqab debate is a stupid, stupid issue. If this is important to you, you’re are a sucker. A patsy. A mark. A chump. A boob. A stooge. A schmuck. A handful of women wearing a niqab has absolutely zero impact on the future of this country. It is indeed a wedge issue that the Cons are using to get us to forget about all of the terrible stuff they’ve been doing, and it’s working.

      And here’s the thing… just like Sikh mounties wearing a turban, this will be a non-issue in a few short years. The country will not fall, Sharia law will not become the law of the land. And chances are these woman who are now fighting to wear the niqab, will not think it’s so important that their daughters wear one when they grow up.

  2. See you’re still having trouble creating much of an audience or responses Evan. People ignoring you maybe? Question – is the importation of American Left-wing strategists by the Liberals and NDP also a problem – or only those the Conservatives use. Just askin’, but of course we already know the answer. What about those US robo-call firms they are using? You know the ones who tried to interfere in the last election. And Obama thugs like Axelrod and company – they alright? No wonder the drive-by media have no
    credibility once you get out of Toronto of the elites and the rich art dealers.

  3. A poem for niqabi harper.

    ‘Lose Some Sleep’

    Losing sleep over my
    black silk niqab, harper

    try to lose it over
    missing murdered red
    brown women
    of this fast-fracking
    land, harper

    Losing sleep over my
    black silk niqab, harper

    Lose it over
    homeless jobless
    multicoloured people
    of your C51-aspiring
    brand, harper

    Losing sleep over my
    black silk niqab, harper

    Lose it over
    spilled oil minimum wage
    toil poisoned soil
    of your tarsands-producing
    wasteland, harper

    By morning
    perhaps we’ll see the
    bright BARE face
    of a composite order for a
    national inquiry just economy
    sustainable development
    itself on the
    parliament hill
    in your soft pink
    hand, harper.
    A not-for-profit
    stand, harper.

  4. If 50 million people say a foolish thing… it is still a foolish thing.
    (Anatole France)

  5. What bothers me most regarding the “niquab issue”, is the media seems to play up to the fear mongering. Rather than explaining the fact these women have already exposed their identities, prior to the formal ceremony. The “journalist(s)” preamble to this issue is always playing up to the Con of fear.

  6. Hi Evan,

    An interesting piece and well written.

    I have one point of contention that isn’t really about the point of the article but is still worth considering as a journalist in Canada.

    To quote, “I was riffing on John Maynard Keynes’s use of the term “animal spirits,” his economic description of irrational, emotional behaviour.”

    In future articles you may want to reflect on the history of animal spirits in Native Communities in Canada. I’m not sure they would understand your reference and ideas in such terms.

    For a country that’s striving towards truth and reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters comments like this undermine the whole process and possibility.

    Thanks for your consideration,


    • Hi Matt,

      I believe you are confusing the term “animal spirits” (derived from the 1936 book by John Maynard Keynes, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”) with “spirit animals.” Animal spirits refers to the basic animal instincts that guide human behaviour within the context of economics: eg, our animal instincts guide us to be optimistic regarding gains, regardless of what mathematics or previous patterns may show. I see that you already understand the concept of “spirit animals” (alternately referring to power animals and spirit guides in Shamanistic traditions) and therefore I will not elaborate on such.

  7. This article suggests that the “issue” in this election was Mike Duffy, whose abuse of Senate expenses was the biggest “dead cat” of them all, yet went on for more than 18 months as a favourite media topic. Duffy had nothing to do with the major issues affecting Canada and nothing to do with the Conservative government’s performance. You can argue that whether people should be able to cover their faces when dealing with public or official situations is a relatively minor issue, but it is symbolic of two other questions that deeply trouble many Canadians. These are how can we square legal acceptance of face covering with Canadian cultural norms of openness, honesty and respect for women, and do we support increased immigration of people who now and forever reject Canadian cultural norms? These are legitimate issues given the current very high levels of immigration and the suggestion we should increase them further.

  8. Excellent analogy. Intellectually we can see that the dead cat is a distraction; emotionally, it works. And emotionally, what this dead cat tells me is that Harper is willing to throw brown people under the bus to get votes (and oil, as in the case of Aboriginal Canadians). The fact that he is willing and able to do that should be a real concern to any moral person. It’s a violation of the basic moral that we first teach our children: do unto others. What will it be like when Harper and his strategists decide that bashing your group will win them votes or power? At this point, it’s nothing but crystal clear that anyone who votes Conservative is voting for racism. Lucky for them they’re “old stock” enough, and not yet in Harper’s way, not to fear they’ll be next to be turned into a dead cat.

  9. Left out the part where the media played along.

    No media personalities said this issue was racist.

    Not a one. Nenshi finally had to do it, because nobody else would.

    It’s disgusting and sleazy. And the pundits all played along.