David Farrar

The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Will HMNZS National get off the reef?

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Prime Minister John Key and Rotorua MP Todd McClay visit the Maketu Estuary. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key and Rotorua MP Todd McClay visit the Maketu Estuary. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I was asked at a speaking engagement a couple of weeks ago whether the election was a foregone conclusion, as there was such a lead in the polls for National. My response was to quote former United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and say "Events, dear boy, events".

This famous quote was Macmillan's response to the question of what is most likely to blow a Government off course. And the blowing of the Rena off course onto a reef near Tauranga most definitely is an event. Of course from what we know the Rena was not blown off course, but deliberately steered into a well known and marked reef. The captain and first officer have already been charged with offences.

There are three aspects of the Government's response to the Rena that deserve scrutiny. The first is the actual efforts to stop the Rena sinking and getting the oil out of its tanks. The second is the communications around those efforts, and the third is the mitigation operation to clean up the beaches that do get affected.

Maritime NZ has a detailed plans for accidents of these nature, and as far as I can tell there isn't a lot that could have been done to rescue the Rena after it hit the reef at full speed. However I'm not an expert on maritime rescue operations. It would be sensible to have an independent review done of the operation once it is over to see if there are lessons for the future. But at this stage, while it is easy to be an amateur armchair critic, I think the end result was sadly inevitable.

A more legitimate target is the communications around the Rena operation. On Wednesday I saw an excellent document setting out common questions and answers about the Rena operation. The problem is it was four or five days too late. Material like that should have been available from the beginning.

If you compare to the Christchurch earthquakes, you had Mayor Bob Parker acting as an almost non-stop communications centre. He excelled in getting the necessary information out there. Peter Withall seemed to do the same role at Pike River.

The Rena operation has not had one focal person for communications as far as I can tell. Different agencies and different ministers are involved. It would have been sensible to assign one person as the dedicated spokesperson, with dedicated staff.

But the area where I think there has been the biggest disconnect is that frustration from the local community who want to help clean up their beaches. Now the rulebook says this job should be left to trained professionals with safety gear and training. The oil itself can be a health hazard, but equally dangerous can be the contents of the scores of containers which are bursting open. The rulebook is designed to minimise risk to the public, and laudable in that regard.

But there comes a time where the rulebook should be treated as a guide, not a strait-jacket. I bet you up until the first Christchurch earthquake the Civil Defence rulebook said nothing about having 5,000+ students get involved in the clean up, but Sam Johnson and friends took the initiative and created the Student Volunteer Army which was arguably the brightest aspect to those earthquakes. The SVA has now become a model and part of future disaster planning.

Tauranga doesn't have as many students as Christchurch. I joked on radio that their army is likely to be the Grey Power Volunteer Army, but like the students of Christchurch they are citizens and residents wanting to do their bit to help their community. They don't want to leave it to the Army.

The challenge for the Government is to quickly find a way for all the good people of Tauranga and surrounds to play a part in recovering from the disaster. Telling people not to go to the beach is not going to work or go down well.

The Rena is a classic event that MacMillan was referring to. Governments can't stop events from occurring. But it is their response to such events that determine whether they get blown just slightly off course, or if they actually reverse direction.

*David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.

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