When I was doing Vote Chat with Bryce Edwards at Otago University on Friday he raised the good question of the political balancing act that surrounds how opposition political parties respond to a disaster, in this case the Rena. As an Opposition there is the risk that people will see criticism of the government as politicising the situation, being opportunistic etc. Equally part of the role of an Opposition is to hold the government to account, whatever the horrendous circumstances might be.
To get one thing out of the way straight up, no one is saying the Government is to blame for the Rena hitting the reef. I am also sure that John Key, Steven Joyce and Nick Smith are as disturbed as I am by the images of the oil on beaches and the death and injury of wildlife. Every New Zealander will want to see the damage from the accident mitigated and the environment cleaned up. What is a legitimate question though is whether faced with the incident the government showed the leadership that we should expect of them and acted as swiftly and effectively as they should have.
My take is that the government were flat footed and to keen to sheet blame and responsibility elsewhere rather than take the leadership role we want our government to take in times of crisis. Someone I worked with once said that people mostly want the government out of their way when things are going well, but they want them there yesterday when things go wrong. I think National got that wrong in the first few days of the Rena incident.
And criticism of this is not just coming from Labour, but also from people who might normally be described as friends of the government like John Roughan, Paul Holmes and even Matthew Hooten. Here is part of Hooten’s NBR column which is not on-line. (h/t Liberation)
Joyce failed totally to comprehend what the Rena grounding meant to the Bay of Plenty’, and ‘He did not see that, as transport minister and arguably the most powerful figure in the government after Mr Key, his role was to lead and improve the quality of the response, and ensure it was sufficiently empowered and resourced. When he spoke publicly, he demonstrated little empathy with locals, telling them there was no point going to the beach to clean up the oil, saying more was on its way and that it could take years to resolve anyway
Then there is the question of whether the government had done the work over the last three years to have us planned for a disaster like this. There are questions here too, with the freeze on funding for Maritime NZ and the failure to put in place the mechanism that would see more of the costs of dealing with the disaster fall on the ship company and less on you and me.
So, in the face of this disaster, we join with all New Zealanders in wanting to protect our beautiful coastline and all those, human and animal who inhabit it. But we also take our role seriously to raise the question- Where was the leadership?, and in this case it was sadly lacking.