By Malinda Seneviratne –
The term is attributed to Lynton Crosby, a political strategist who has managed campaigns of right-of-center parties in several countries. Boris Johnson, who employed Crosby during London mayoral elections explains the term thus:
“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.”
Dr Diyanath Samarasinghe, in what is clearly the best explication of the humbuggery associated with the recently concluded local government elections and especially the blatant disenfranchisement and hoodwinking therein, uses a neat example which is worth repeating here.
Let’s first mention the dead cat. It has a name: The Excise Notification 02/2018 of January 10, 2018. This was to revoke Excise Notification No 666 of 1979, permitting women to purchase alcohol and to work in places where alcohol is sold.
There was a lot of talk about it. Eleven women went to court invoking fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 12(1 & 2) and 14(1)(g) of the Constitution in spite of which the January 10 Excise Notification was revoked.
Here’s the context. The National Action Plan for the Protection and Protection of Human Rights (2017-2021) devotes 22 pages to the rights of women (pages 37-58). There are 26 goals therein, 40 objectives of which 29 are considered deliverable in the short-term and 99 activities. Only one goal, No 6, is about the promotion of women’s economic rights and independence, including access to employment. The relevant objective is worded thus: increased participation of women in the state and private sector employment. It’s a medium-long term goal.
[For the record the seemingly comprehensive document on human rights says nothing of forced female genital circumcision or of gender inequalities related to marriage-age, divorce procedures etc.]
Against all this, the not-mentioned or alluded to business of allowing women to purchase alcohol and work in places where alcohol is sold, is certainly a dead cat, especially considering the gamut of issues pertaining to women included in the document and their prioritizing.
And what did this dead cat displace from the table? The reduction of beer taxes which, according to Dr Samarasinghe ‘worked brilliantly for the relevant politicians and their alcohol trade masters.’ One notes that individuals who have never uttered a single word about reducing beer taxes have strangely enough called for it almost immediately after being appointed as Finance Ministers. Obviously officials prevail on them for reasons that are to obvious to mention. Mangala Samaraweera’s predecessors probably did not know of dead cats, we could conclude. Beer, to put it in a nutshell, is a starter-drink which the industry uses to lure in the young.
So that’s what dead cats do. Women’s rights activists jumped on the alcohol issue but are strangely quiet over ensuring 25% political representation for women, as Dr Samarasinghe observed. Indeed, if they had paid attention to the amendment to the laws pertaining to local government elections, they would have figured out what a farce it was, and not just for women’s representation.
Dr Samarasinghe has laid it all out beautifully. In short, a) the public has been deceived into believing that there has been a 60 – 40 seat allocation (first-past-the-post and proportional representation respectively), b) burdened by almost double the number of representatives, and c) almost all parties that have won the most of directly contested seats are denied their proper share of proportional seats.
It is not possible of course to name the recent violence in Kandy as a dead cat, although the Government has not covered itself in glory considering its sloth, incompetence, garbled messages, infringement of expression-freedom and in certain instances collusion with perpetrators.
In effect, however, it serves the same purpose. Let’s flag some issues: a) Arjuna Mahendran and the Bond Scam, b) the mess that is the local government election, c) the government’s loss of legitimacy, d) the corruption of the word ‘yahapalanaya,’ d) the Russian ship, e) SriLankan Airlines, f) constitutional reform, g) gross incompetence across the board and h) the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister and indeed all the noise about his ouster as the Leader of the United National Party.
All these are off the table. Digana, Teldeniya and Ambatenne, then, together, made a dead cat. And now, following all that, there’s the issue of blocking social media platforms.
Minister of Digital Infrastructure Technology says that the government is contemplating the monitoring of social media usage. President Sirisena, speaking on the subject, said ‘if something is detrimental to society we will have to contain its effects despite it being useful in some other way.’ Champika Ranawaka called for ‘new regulations to regulate cloud applications like Facebook or WhatsApp to prevent their improper use.’
The dead cat here is ‘hate speech’, what it intends to displace is the freedom of expression. The instruments of control once in place can be used and abused. We’ve seen this happen again and again. Weeding out the distasteful is a good thing but taste is subjective and preferences are political.
Interestingly, those who have championed rights issues in the past have gone quiet over this issue. For them, and others who are shocked into silence and inaction by these dead cats, let me repeat something I wrote when the 18th Amendment was tabled in parliament.
“The worth of any new legislation should not be measured only in terms of its immediate benefits and whether the principal beneficiary is a political friend; rather, consider the relevant instruments in the hands of an individual who is politically at odds with you, someone whose ideas and practices you abhor.”
This government, more than ever before, needs conversation to cease. Clearing the table citing the presence of a dead cat is convenient. The government needs dead cats. Lots of them. The least that the citizen can do is to refuse to provide them.
*Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.malindawords.blogspot.com