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Herald on Sunday editorial: Perception has become reality

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Prime Minister John Key and Transport Minister Stephen Joyce visit the Incident Command Centre in Tauranga. Photo / Christine Cornege
Prime Minister John Key and Transport Minister Stephen Joyce visit the Incident Command Centre in Tauranga. Photo / Christine Cornege

When Prime Minister John Key challenged the doubters to tell him what they'd have done differently in the response to the Rena disaster this week, it must have been tempting for those watching in the Bay of Plenty to yell at the television: "Everything".

For days they'd seen a large container ship sitting on a reef bleeding oil into their much-loved marine environment. Very little else appeared to have been happening.

Then the oil arrived at some of the country's most popular beaches and they were told to stay away. Even worse, officials trying to clean up after containers started coming ashore, spilling their loads, put operations on hold because they had paperwork to fill out. People felt powerless.

If perception is reality, Key had a real problem on his hands weeks out from an election it seemed he could not be troubled in.

The message hit home. The PM responded: "Show me how you'd go faster? Show me how you'd do anything different? You'd mobilise the best people in the world, work out exactly what the structural damage was, how to get the oil off the ship, which barge to put it in ... that's exactly what's happened in the first four days."

The popular prime minister and his main men in caucus left Party Central and headed for the disaster. Key even fronted a public meeting in the Bay on Friday and the reaction afterwards was one of resignation - those interviewed by the media said they had not realised the difficulties involved in dealing with such a rare event.

Our politicians in the past 12 months have had a succession of rare, and horrific, events to deal with. The statisticians would surely say the two Christchurch earthquakes, the Pike River disaster and our worst shipping accident, in environmental and cost terms at least, are something like one in 100-year events.

Repeatedly, we've heard the Prime Minister having to explain how appropriately his team has responded to adversity.

No one has believed him 100 per cent but, with an absence of hard evidence, Key has sailed on in the polls.

This time may be different. Already Maritime New Zealand has admitted it was too slow in organising and training the thousands of clean-up volunteers.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce told the NZ Herald yesterday he hadn't asked if there was a big enough helicopter in the country to start lifting containers off the ship. When the ship sat in flat waters for the first few days, wouldn't every little bit of action have helped?

And it appears our politicians' slowness in signing up to international conventions may limit the amount of money we can claim for the clean-up.

Of course, none of this would have stopped the ship hitting the reef and the damage to the beaches and wildlife, with more than 1000 birds dead already.

Like any country, we could be better prepared - but that takes time, money and planning. Mine rescue initiatives and equipment, and how to best cope with a shipping disaster, were not far enough up our priority queue for that to happen.

No one will be able to hang Key on that and even with what we have experienced in the past year, that may not change in the future.

What Kiwis expect though is that they, and their leaders, will roll up their sleeves and get in and deal with problems expediently.

The spin doctors in Wellington can pedal as fast as they like, but they are going to struggle to convince that happened with the Rena disaster.

- Herald on Sunday

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