The analysis turns on two key assertions:
"Bill 18 in some quarters became more a debate over whether the Bible condemns homosexuality than on its merits in protecting kids from bullying."
"Allan, Opposition Leader Brian Pallister and his education critic, Steinbach's Kelvin Goertzen, have in the past week attempted to calm the waters and steer the debate more to bullying itself."
Both assertions play into Brian Pallister's suggestion that targeted measures to deal with the bullying of gay students are a distraction that somehow diminishes our ability to deal with ‘real’ bullying, the kind that can victimize the majority of kids. Pallister put this most clearly with this careful comment to Canadian Press: “We're concerned that the bill work for all children, not specifically concerned with a sub-set of the students of our province, but rather that it work to protect all children against bullying." For those without a Brian Pallister de-coder ring, the “sub-set of the students” to which he was referring are gay students.
Why is Pallister trying to play down the bullying of gay students? He is desperate to steer the debate away from this type of bullying because a vocal element of his political base, conservative Christians, is vehemently opposed to dealing with it. If Pallister stands with them, he risks alienating mainstream Manitoba in general, and Winnipeg swing voters in particular. The extreme conservative fundamentalism of Bill 18 opponents turns off the very voters he needs to win over to form a government. This is Pallister's conundrum and he is trying to deal with it by asserting a phoney distinction between bullying of gay students and ‘real’ bullying.
Pallister is particularly desperate to make this gambit work because his image has yet to be defined as PC leader. Bill 18 is not a vote determining issue for many voters, but it is precisely the kind of issue that defines the character of a party leader. Does he risk defining himself as a mouthpiece for the conservative extremists that have been the political albatross of conservative parties everywhere in recent years? Or does he define himself as a principled leader willing to stand up to the conservative extremists?
By playing down the importance of gay bullying and proclaiming his concern with 'real’ bullying, Pallister is trying to avoid this difficult choice. If he succeeds, he can he can position himself as sharing middle class parents' concerns about bullying while continuing to practice "dog whistle" politics with his base. Proclaiming his lack of concern for the gay "sub-set" of students sends a "dog whistle"message to conservative Christians that he sympathizes with their views on gays, but sends it in a way that isn't quite loud or brazen enough that mainstream Manitoba hears him as a loony conservative extremist. His political strategy does all this by using cynical “dog whistle” tactics more usually associated with American Republicans.
Unfortunately, Pallister's strategy is based on a very offensive distinction between 'real' bullying and bullying of gay students. It throws bullied gay students, many of whom have courageously formed or joined gay-straight alliance groups, under the bus. It provides no hope for bullied gay students in even less welcoming schools. These students need to know that the province will have their back even if their own schools would rather not.
The proposition that targeted measures to address the bullying of gay students are needed has been made abundantly clear by the backlash against Bill 18. With every attack, the extremist leaders leading the charge against Bill 18 make it clear that 'their' schools are not at all interested in creating a safe and welcoming environment for gay students. On the contrary, they are creating an environment that only encourages those who would tease and bully gay students. With each utterance they strengthen the case for Bill 18 and make the government's job in this debate easier. This is another reason why Pallister wants to steer the debate away from gay-straight alliance groups.
Pallister's political strategy suggests that he very much understands the anatomy of the Bill 18 controversy in a way that the Free Press analysis missed. Hopefully Manitobans will see through his cynicism.