Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Leaders' blinkers on while bad tidings brew

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Steven Joyce, in charge of the Rena disaster response, didn't show up in Tauranga until four days after the incident. Photo / Alan Gibson
Steven Joyce, in charge of the Rena disaster response, didn't show up in Tauranga until four days after the incident. Photo / Alan Gibson

Do you get the feeling that John Key and one of his key lieutenants, Steven Joyce, were so engrossed with the Rugby World Cup that they didn't see the political risks of the Rena disaster until a few days too late?

Key and his Government have been in honeymoon heaven for this entire parliamentary term. It seemed the glow would never end. Nothing has stuck to them politically after Pike River or the Christchurch earthquakes. So I can only assume they have become so comfortable they didn't see the risks when the Rena ran aground on a reef.

The minister in charge of the reef disaster response (or lack of it) is Joyce, who is supposed to be the new boy-wonder of political strategy.

He's seen as the shiny new replacement for old warhorse and Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully. But McCully is in a class of his own.

When Auckland's city and trains managers woefully underestimated the number of Aucklanders turning up for the World Cup opening, McCully knew the political implications.

The public wanted someone to blame and McCully made damn sure he wasn't caught in the backlash.

The day after the shambles, he brazenly blamed the Mayor and his council. Len Brown dutifully fell into the trap by saying there had been failings on his management's side. This allowed McCully to boldly proclaim that the Government was taking over.

Of course it was nonsense, as no one involved was going to let the debacle happen again. In any event, 200,000 people were never going to come into the city again during the Cup.

McCully was cynically opportunistic and, in my view, insincere but it was masterful political management. His swift grandstanding ensured the Government got off the hook and most people would have got the impression that it was the council's fault.

Contrast that with Joyce's mishandling of Rena. He didn't even get to Tauranga until four days after the ship ran aground. Having the Transport Minister prattling on, saying all had been done that could be done, was just stupid.

For days everyone could see on the nightly television news footage of the ship in calm seas, leaking oil that was washing up on the beaches. It was plain to see that nothing obvious was being done.

The only members of Parliament visible from the start were from the Green Party.

This disaster, of course, is something they would take leadership on. But they did better than that - they sent their entire caucus. The Greens now own this story politically. The rest of the parties have to play catch-up.

And where was Key? The day after the wreck, there was a picture of our smiling Prime Minister in the New Zealand Herald, pretending to put up a campaign billboard for his Hamilton candidate.

Oh dear, oh dear. It has parallels with Roman emperor Nero fiddling while his city burned.

Maybe the Labour Party's charge that Key is more interested in photo opportunities than doing his job has a ring of truth about it.

Until now, Key has had political credit to burn. But, for the first time, many New Zealanders will have a question mark in their minds about our Teflon leader. This is bad news for him just six weeks away from election day.

It takes more than one thing to change a political tide. But add the other bad news - a record $18.4 billion fiscal deficit that is $2 billion out in this Government's forecasting, our country's credit-rating downgrade by international experts and the admission that the GST rise to 12.5 per cent didn't pay for the tax cuts to the rich, as Key claimed and, in fact, cost us more than $1 billion - makes Key's competence and management suspect.

Key and Joyce have mishandled the Rena wreck badly. Joyce is the National Party's campaign manager.

I suggest they give the job to McCully as he is a proven master at avoiding the rocks - or at least in making sure he has a scapegoat ready when things go bang in the night.

- Herald on Sunday

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