John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Was anyone cracking the whip?

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John Key made excuses on behalf of the rescue agencies when the Rena foundered last week. Photo / Christine Cornege
John Key made excuses on behalf of the rescue agencies when the Rena foundered last week. Photo / Christine Cornege

How well are we being governed? Let's accept nothing could be done for the miners at Pike River.

Let's assume it is not worth beginning the rebuilding of Christchurch until aftershocks stop. But when a ship hits a reef and lies there, leaking oil, in calm sea for five fine days, I wonder.

John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Steven Joyce, all reasonable men, have been satisfied in each of these mishaps that everything possible was or is being done and that nobody could do more. But maybe leadership has to be unreasonable at times.

When a Prime Minister hears that a fully laden container ship has foundered on a populated coast, I imagine he summons a crisis meeting of ministers and chief executives of all agencies that could possibly be useful.

At that meeting he should not be listening to reasons why not much can be done before the weather breaks.

If he is hearing only problems and excuses, I would hope he stops the talk and, speaking very slowly and clearly, says we will not have oil destroy Bay of Plenty beaches next week, we will not have floating containers pose a risk to shipping from our busiest export harbour, the livelihoods of people in fishing, tourism and recreation industries will not be ruined this summer.

He tells them he will reconvene the meeting in two hours and says, "When I come back I want to hear what we are going to do."

I can't hear Key talking like that, nor Transport Minister Joyce. I can easily hear Rob Muldoon, Richard Prebble, Jenny Shipley or Helen Clark.

Clark would have applied some media pressure. Right after such a session she would have told reporters what she expected from Maritime New Zealand and would have aligned herself with public anger if solutions were not forthcoming.

Key's leadership style is Richie McCaw not Graham Henry. He is a good bloke who fronts for his team, he is not feared by public servants as far as we can see.

He doesn't demand miracles of them and when they say they can't do very much he makes their explanations to us.

His ministers follow suit. Joyce has explained why so little was happening around the MV Rena on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and most of last Sunday.

The ship had hit Astrolabe Reef at such speed, he said, that fuel lines in the hull had been rendered useless and the fuel could not be pumped off the ship until new pipes were installed on her decks.

It was late Sunday before they could started pumping oil off. Unfortunately by Monday, exactly as forecast, the weather had turned and the sea got up. The oil barge withdrew with superficial damage.

On Tuesday the crew abandoned the ship, on Wednesday the hull started to crack ...

Joyce's explanation sounds reasonable to me but maybe as a voter I ought to be more demanding. He and Key did not succeed in business, I bet, by accepting reasonable explanations for failure. They would have demanded results.

Surprising things can happen when the heat is put on. If the Government was sweating about the election six weeks from today Maritime NZ might have felt sufficient heat to come up with some way of containing that oil while they could.

They say a train wreck seems to happen in slow-motion, a shipwreck really does. Joyce and Key were resigned to environmental disaster when the sun was still shining last week.

"The reality is we are going to see a significant spill," said Joyce that Friday, "I think everybody is preparing for the worst ..."

Bay of Plenty residents weren't defeated. They went to the beaches with bags and spades to at least do something. And they were warned off.

Maritime NZ said the mess was unsafe. It could cause a skin rash, the clean-up should be left to those who were trained and equipped for it.

Our helpless authorities had found something to do.

The day the Rena went on to the rocks I happened to pass a television as Bill English was casually telling Parliament the Government had not taken Treasury advice to do something more to redirect investment in the economy.

He said the Treasury believed too much investment would go back into property when the economy picks up, "but we don't". "We" believed New Zealanders' investment habits had changed.

Complacency could be forgiven last week. The country was still entranced by the World Cup. We hadn't seen the All Blacks struggle, South Africa hadn't suffered our previous fate.

This week nothing seems as certain, not even the election now that something has happened to remind us of it and raise the question. How well are we being governed, really?

- NZ Herald

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