How much confidence should the public have in authorities managing natural disasters? Not much, judging by the farcical way in which the civil defence emergency in Auckland has played out.
The way authorities dealt with Auckland’s extreme weather on Friday illustrated how hit-and-miss our civil defence emergency system is. In particular, the communications failures made the crisis much worse than it needed to be.
Wayne Brown and the Auckland Council being blamed
Government agencies are being criticised for their incompetence in dealing with Friday’s disaster. But the politician with the most questions to answer is the recently-elected mayor Wayne Brown.
Brown has been charged by many as being asleep at the wheel during the crisis. When the public was expecting leadership on Friday, they got silence. Brown was missing in action throughout the day and most of the evening. Although he finally announced a state of emergency at 10.17pm, there’s a strong consensus that this should have come many hours earlier.
Yesterday one of Brown’s own staff members told a journalist “we’re doing a terrible job”, and Aucklanders will agree. Brown himself now admits that “some incorrect decisions” may have been made.
Broadcaster Rachel Smalley says today that it’s now clear that Brown “does not have the core competencies to lead a city through a crisis”. She points out that when the mayor communicated with the public “he was combative, rude, belligerent, and seemed focused on protecting his reputation. And this in the hours that followed confirmation that Aucklanders had died in the floods”.
Lack of communication with the public
All central and government agencies did a very bad job of communicating with Aucklanders on Friday evening. Auckland Emergency Management proved particularly unhelpful to the public during the chaos of Friday. This council-run agency is responsible for co-ordinating civil defence, and yet it didn’t release any sort of statement until 6pm on Friday – despite it being clear that a massive weather emergency was brewing. Between 6pm and 10pm it issued no social media alerts at all. Auckland Transport also left most travellers in the dark.
As for New Zealand’s civil defence mobile phone message warning system, this failed to kick in. It only issued warnings to Aucklanders’ phones on Sunday night – over 48 hours too late.
Many Aucklanders said they felt abandoned on Friday. Authorities normally keep in touch with the public throughout a disaster. According to Civil Defence Minister Kieran McAnulty, “Even when there’s nothing new to say, we have to keep talking to people” – ideally every 30 minutes. This didn’t happen.
Today the Herald points out in its editorial that during the day, “There was ample time for local authorities to alert people during the day to the fact [the weather] was expected to get worse”. The newspaper admonishes authorities for failing to communicate crucial information that could have helped: “People needed phone alerts of the worsening storm and advice so they could get home or shift to higher ground early. In particular the suburbs being hit hardest needed attention. A live press conference to announce a state of emergency and evacuation centres in the early afternoon would have helped.”
The Herald’s Simon Wilson pinpoints the crucial role that Mayor Brown should have played throughout Friday: “Brown has not grasped that it’s the job of political leaders to lead from the front, visibly, in times of crisis. Think Bob Parker in his orange raincoat during the Christchurch earthquakes. John Key after Pike River, Jacinda Ardern over and over again. In a crisis, political leaders are supposed to soak up people’s fears.”
Stuff’s Todd Niall adds: “Being mayor is about more than crunching budget numbers and table-thumping to deliver election promises. It’s about being visibly there for Aucklanders when they expect him to.”
Brown did eventually give an informal press conference, at 11.14pm, to which many media organisations weren’t even invited. And when he spoke on the radio the next morning he wasn’t able to answer simple questions such as whether the tap water was safe to drink.
State of emergency declared too late
Many politicians – ranging from Auckland city councillors through to Opposition leader Christopher Luxon – have complained that Wayne Brown and his council staff should have declared a state of emergency many hours earlier than they did. Luxon even resorted to tweeting his request to Brown to do so.
Brown has since explained that he left this issue to the Auckland Emergency Management team, which has the official role of advising on this.
Auckland Emergency Management says that it started to consider a state of emergency at about 5pm on Friday, and decided against one at 6pm. Brown says he eventually signed the declaration at 9.27pm. But, strangely, it wasn’t publicly announced until nearly an hour later.
A failure of leadership
In defending his role in delay, Brown has said he had to let the bureaucracy do its job and follow the correct process: “The state of emergency is a prescribed process. It’s quite formal. I had to wait until I had the official request from the emergency management centre”.
The council staff became a clear focus for Brown’s defence, with him adding: “I rely on the professionals to tell me exactly what steps to take, and I follow those exactly”.
The problem is that Brown was supposed to be a mayor who would get things done, and push aside the bureaucracy in order to be effective. As Wilson points out, “He won an election by excoriating the professionals in charge of the City Rail Link, Auckland Transport, Ports of Auckland and other council agencies.”
For political commentator Liam Hehir this is the age-old problem with populist politicians: “Populists often campaign on promises to shake up the status quo and disrupt entrenched bureaucracy, but once they attain power, they often find the comforts and excuse-making of bureaucracy too easy to hide behind. This is particularly true in situations where difficult decisions must be made and accountability is required.”
Hehir therefore says, “It’s so revealing that, after holding himself out as someone impatient with bureaucracy, the Mayor of Auckland seems determined to hide behind it.”
What’s more, Hehir says that even if the state of emergency process had to take as long as it did, this didn’t prevent Brown from staying in touch with Auckland: “what was to stop him talking directly to the public about the need to evacuate and using his bully pulpit to harangue officials into action?”
By Sunday, Brown was back to blaming staff for the late state of emergency declaration. In a visit to a community hall in Māngere, he was reported as saying that there “may have been some incorrect decisions from the emergency management group”.
Blaming the bureaucracy and PR professionals
Increasingly, the bureaucracy is being blamed for the poor management of Auckland’s weather disaster. Of course, public servants are absolutely crucial for making society function properly. But too often the system can become bureaupathic, with rules and procedures becoming more important than producing the right outcomes. Officials themselves can become more driven by self-interest than by serving the public interest.
In this regard, Liam Hehir also suggests that an unhealthy bureaucracy can make things worse, arguing that too often “officialdom can serve to perpetuate and worsen a disaster” and “layers of red tape and regulations prevent swift and decisive action, ultimately leading to a lack of accountability”.
We saw on Friday night that one of the worst examples of this was when Waka Kotahi – the government agency tasked with roads – logged off early in the disaster, tweeting that it was finishing for the night about 7.30pm, and leaving road users to their own devices.
The modern public service is now dominated by a “public relations focus” which is more about “political spin” than public service. Comms staff – both in central and local government – are now a huge part of the budget, and have an increasingly influential role in shaping how politics works.
As we have seen in recent years, the job of comms and PR specialists is increasingly about damage limitation, preventing public information from getting out, and spinning news so their bosses look good. And politicians themselves are increasingly all about communicating good news and messages about themselves. Their core mode is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Hence when the politicians and the comms staff must communicate essential information they are in unknown territory – many simply aren’t able to deal with the realities of natural disasters.
Of course, the blame can’t be all shifted to the bureaucracy – the mayor himself has proven to be the worst communicator of all. He was already failing to front up to the public prior to Friday. It was reported last week that Brown had only agreed to two media interviews out of 108 requests.
Today’s Herald editorial points out that Brown will be remembered for his “tone-deaf” defence on Friday night that “my role isn’t to rush out with buckets”.
The Hipkins-led Government has come off better than Brown
Friday’s crisis was Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ first chance to prove himself and his political management skills. Of course, he was always going to struggle in any comparison with his acclaimed predecessor.
The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan has evaluated Hipkins’ role, saying he was inferior to Ardern when it came to connecting emotionally and with empathy when he visited Auckland. For example, “Meeting residents, he at times didn’t know what to say when the cameras were rolling – a stark contrast with Ardern.”
But it was Saturday’s farcical press conference which Hipkins shared with Brown that was particularly difficult. Hipkins stood alongside Brown, but the Prime Minister, together with his two other emergency ministers, were completely marginalised.
According to Coughlan: “This would not have happened under Ardern, who one can’t imagine ever sharing a platform with Brown in the first place, and if she had, would have found some way to control him. Ardern, a veteran of many crisis press briefings, never lost control of a press conference. Her ability to exert power over the press, by controlling the order of questions was famous to the parody, but what was less appreciated was her ability to control the cast of characters with whom she often shared a stage.”
So why did Hipkins allow Brown to monopolise the press conference? Coughlan suggests it might have been a simple case of Hipkins knowing to let Brown take the blame for what had happened.
But it could also be that Hipkins lost control to Brown: “That is concerning. As Prime Minister, he commands power incomparably greater than the others in the room, power his predecessor happily exerted in a time of crisis. He failed to exert that power in that moment”.
RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson adds today that “Chris Hipkins allowed himself to be sidelined during a pivotal media event he should have made his own.” She says that this “was the chance for Hipkins to shine in his first prime ministerial days; he delivered his scripted lines at the start, gave some reassurance and pledges of support, but at times allowed himself to be sidelined by Brown and his bluster”.
Most importantly, however, when the Prime Minister was asked if he had confidence in Auckland’s local leadership, all Hipkins could say was: “that’s not a question for me”.
Aucklanders won’t be so inhibited. An increasing number are likely to see this as an early turning point in which they have lost confidence and regret the election of the self-proclaimed “Fix-It Mayor” who failed his first test. Already an online petition calling for Brown to resign has accumulated about 9000 signatures.
Although the mayor, as well as the emergency systems and authorities, obviously didn’t create the disaster, they had a responsibility to mitigate its worse effects, which they did not do. Lives have been lost, the public has faced significant disruption, and there have been billions of dollars of damage to property. The failures of authorities mean that these consequences have potentially been much worse than they needed to be.
- Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.