Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why the Rena is an issue

On Monday night, the Dom-Post's National Affairs editor Vernon Small asked on Twitter why the government was so worried about the Rena disaster: "Am I missing some thing or symbol?" His column this morning repeats his bafflement:

Not for the first time the Government is facing a possible backlash from events largely not of its making, but which test its crisis management.

But for the first time, in the case of the Rena, it is looking extremely nervous about the possible toxic spillover.

It is not immediately clear why.

Small is supposed to be a political journalist. If its not immediately clear why the Rena is a problem for the government, then I can only suggest he's been recycling government press releases too long. It comes down to basically two issues: competence, and priorities.

On the first, the government of course did not crash the ship, and (contrary to Hekia Parata's repeated claims) are not responsible for the weather. They are, however, responsible for how they have responded to those things. And on any assessment, that response has been lacking. Maritime New Zealand treated it from the beginning as a traffic accident, not a potential environmental disaster. They made no moves to contain the initial spill, and turned down offers of inflatable barges to offload the Rena's oil to prevent a larger spill. They squandered four days of good weather in which they could have minimised the consequences of the disaster. And the results of that dithering can now be seen all over Tauranga's beaches.

This feeds into the second problem: the government's inaction highlights the gulf in values between them and ordinary kiwis. Ordinary New Zealanders regard the environment as a priority, especially where recreation opportunities are concerned. National does not. Witness their enthusiasm to dig up our national parks, their erosion of environmental standards, their foot-dragging on climate change. But now, that attitude is going to bite them, hard. People understand that a government which shared their concerns about the environment would have acted sooner. While this would not have prevented the disaster, it would likely have mitigated it somewhat. Which means that Tauranga residents wouldn't be needing masks to walk on the beach.

Finally, this has happened somewhere very visible. Tauranga is one of New Zealand's iconic spots; tens of thousands of people go there every summer and to celebrate New Year. Which means that the impact extends far beyond the local population. Lots of people have been there, and can imagine what the disaster means - and lots of people who were planning to go this year will be making alternative plans as a result. And they'll all be thinking that if the government had done a better job, they wouldn't be having to do that.

That's why the Rena matters. And any political journalist who doesn't immediately understand that should hang up their notepad in shame.