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jeffrey simpson

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been a dog-whistle government since first being elected. With an election seven months away, the whistles are blowing more insistently than ever.

The whistles summon the Conservative base to another political mobilization. Those beyond the base can't stand the sound; it drives them to distraction. But for those within the base, the whistles are music to their ears.

Rural gun owners. Single-income families with stay-at-home mothers. Targeted ethnic groups. These are parts of the base where whistles have recently been directed.

If there's one initiative Conservatives are proud of, it's the dismantling of the Liberals' gun registry. Gun owners mostly disliked the registry, and the Conservatives milked that dislike for all it was worth.

They are still milking it in their defence of "law-abiding" gun owners. When Mr. Harper mused recently that people in rural areas who live far from police should have guns at hand to deal with intruders, it was another sounding of the whistle.

Crime and police experts, the gun-control lobby and everyone who thinks Canada should have fewer guns shouted in horror. The Prime Minister couldn't have cared less, however. His whistle will be heard through all that noise by the people to whom he was speaking, reassuring them that he is on their side.

The Ozzie and Harriet family of the 1950s is a family structure that's decidedly in the minority today. Still, the Conservatives wondered, what can we do for them? Remember, the Conservative modus operandi is to target benefits rather than spreading them (the HST cut excepted).

So they hit upon income splitting, which was so egregiously designed in its first iteration that it had to be redone. The new policy (called the Family Tax Cut) put limits on the benefit, but it still will help just 15 per cent of families, it will go disproportionately toward better-off families and it will discourage people from entering the work force on balance – at a cost to the treasury of more than $2-billion a year. These are the conclusions released this week by the non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office.

Ludicrous, you say, to spend $2-billion on a program that does nothing for the majority of families and helps those who, relatively speaking, need it least? Maybe so, but this dog whistle for the Ozzie and Harriet vote will be heard through all the protestations of the opposition parties, the social policy and tax experts, the real fiscal conservatives and the editorialists.

Where does the dog-whistling end in the pursuit of ethnic votes? It's hard to know, because there doesn't seem to be a floor the government will not go beneath, as for example in the pursuit of votes in the Vietnamese community.

A Conservative senator of Vietnamese heritage has pushed through a private member's bill recognizing the flight of Vietnamese people to Canada after the fall of Saigon and the arrival of Vietnam's Communist government.

The government is rushing the bill through the Commons, to the delight of those who favour it. The good senator has also lobbied, thankfully without success, for Canadians to fly the old red-and-yellow-striped South Vietnamese flag, instead of the yellow-starred banner flown by today's Vietnamese government – the same government with which Canada is negotiating within the Trans-Pacific partnership and with which Canada generally has sound bilateral relations.

No matter. At a recent Vietnamese cultural event attended by Mr. Harper and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, the hall was decked out in the old flag. Worse, Mr. Kenney paraded around with a version of it draped across his shoulders, like a middle finger held up to the Vietnamese government.

It's a wonder Hanoi didn't withdraw its ambassador from Ottawa. Instead, the Vietnamese embassy sent a protest note to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which, of course, is helpless in the face of political dog-whistling.

Pity Canada's ambassador in Vietnam, trying to explain this kind of diplomatic buffoonery. Pity Canada's ambassador to Turkey, after the government gets finished with playing to the Armenian community on the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the 1915 mass killings.

If the past be prologue, messaging to parts of the base will only intensify in next month's budget and the string of announcements that will come from it.

The Conservatives were elected to a majority with about 40 per cent of the popular vote in 2011. That's the share they need to win again. Rallying the base is critical to achieving that objective.

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