Paul Holmes on New Zealand
Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Politicians' inaction on oil spill earns fail mark


Serious questions need to be asked about events which led to this week's misery and damage.

Feeble excuses won't wash with the people of Papamoa and Mt Maunganui whose beaches are polluted. Picture / Christine Cornege
Feeble excuses won't wash with the people of Papamoa and Mt Maunganui whose beaches are polluted. Picture / Christine Cornege

It seems asinine to erupt in anger at the Rena disaster. Such anger is predictable and everybody's doing it.

But this accident simply should not have happened. In this day and age with all of the technology available to shipping, as it is with aviation, for a ship to sail at full speed straight on to a well-known, well-charted, murderous reef is an outrage. And ain't it true that you don't know what you've got till it's gone, such is the vulnerability of our rich and gorgeous coastal ecology.

But I'll say it anyway. I'm as mad as hell with that ship and owners and its grossly negligent crew. Perhaps I am prejudging them or misjudging them - heaven knows what caused the accident - but I'm pleased that they're from another country because if they were New Zealanders there's a fair chance that what happened that night last week would be covered up.

But when we hear about huge, wondrous, wandering albatrosses lying dead and covered in oil on a sandy beach we know human beings have done something terribly wrong.

So there is all of that, the misery and damage caused by human failure. The behaviour of whoever was on watch on the MV Rena last Wednesday week at 2.20am was unfathomable. How in God's name could such a thing happen?

But, of course, there is the other angle, the political one, the perceived flat-footedness of the Government in dealing with the crisis.

Quite simply it failed to act quickly enough. Everyone knows this. The Government can say what it likes, but they were slow to wake.

There were four fine days in which precious little was done. The Government's radar failed. Did its advice fail it? Did Maritime New Zealand fail to send strong enough warnings?

Now the back-pedalling and the arse-covering from everyone involved is dazzling to watch.

Serious questions are going to be asked of Maritime New Zealand, part of whose brief is shipping safety.

There will have to be questions about what the inspectors found lacking on the ship at Bluff and why the Rena was allowed to sail.

There will have to be a commission of inquiry.

As Transport Minister, Steven Joyce put his first foot wrong this week. You cannot have a vast ship with more than 1300 containers piled on top of it stuck on a reef just a few kilometres from shore with more than 1.7 million litres of oil on board and not get on to it straight away.

Somehow the lights didn't go on in Wellington. To be fair, with the rugby going on, it took a while for the lights of any of us to go on. Accidents like this are once-in-a-lifetime events. This crept up.

But we're just over a month away from an election. National has had an easy run. Labour has been able to make nothing stick. It has not been an effective opposition, partly because of the Key factor. It always underestimated Key, the whizz-bang factor of his sheer newness. And for a fellow whom no one ever thought of as an orator, he's become a damn and often very funny, self-effacing speaker.

So National's been able to sleep-walk and any jolts it's had have been entirely its own making.

Rena has been a very rude awakening.

And even this week, it is National's own unaccountable tardiness to read this crisis that's causing it the trouble. Where's the Labour Party? Phil Goff on the beach hardly does it. Where's the savagery, the hunger? There's an election in six weeks, for God's sake.

On Wednesday, with the country watching in horror as a ship with 1.7 million litres of oil in its guts began to break up just off the beach at Mt Maunganui, Clayton Cosgrove released a long-winded, unreadable statement on law and order.

Its headline was that all single-officer police stations round the country would, under a Labour government, get two policemen.

This is not Churchillian. Law and order are not issues in this election. A Government stumbling on its thumbs with 1.7 million litres of oil and nearly 100 containers belching their way across the waters of paradise might have become one.

But I don't know why John Key's antennae, which are usually very finely tuned, didn't see the Rena earlier. I can only assume that the Government wasn't warned sufficiently that this was the Big One. But five days on from the grounding with the ship toppling over and the oil drifting landwards and the weather forecast to deteriorate, pictures of an empty beach with no one doing anything on One News last Monday night were a very bad look for the Government.

It's all very well saying that the Exxon Valdez was 22 times bigger than the Rena and the spill is 400 times less than the one in the Gulf last year. And that, given the amount of oil shipped round the New Zealand coast, our safety record is excellent. Tell that to the people of Papamoa and Mt Maunganui, to the people of the coasts, the people getting ill from the reek of oil.

- NZ Herald

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