How not to run a country

Running a country is quite a different thing to running a business. Even if your country is little old New Zealand, which probably has less export products than some companies have product lines. When you're running a business and something bad happens you want to immediately neutralise it. That usually means deflecting conversation and shifting blame to someone else. That approach can also work quite well when you're running a country, but it's not the only approach. Sometimes when you're running a country and something bad happens you want to make a big deal out of it and show the people how capable you are of responding to unexpected events.

There are less than seven weeks until the general election on November 26. In the early hours of last Wednesday, 5 October, a Liberian container ship named Rena crashed into the Astrolabe Reef, off the east coast near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty (see basic timeline at According to Tony Manhire at The Guardian, Minister of Transport Steven Joyce has confirmed that the Rena is carrying 1,368 containers, of which at least 22 contain hazardous goods. It has been fairly widely reported that the ship contained 1,900 tonnes of fuel, of which somewhere between 130 and 350 tonnes has so far been released into the ocean (see Maritime New Zealand updates at Manhire reports that Minister for the Environment Nick Smith has called this "the country's most serious ever maritime environmental disaster" (though it isn't clear whether or not that's a direct quote from the Minister).

Now I was going to try and outline the whole factual situation to try and provide a bit more context for what I have to say about this, but pinning down a comprehensive and accurate report has proved more difficult that I had hoped. Almost all of the information available comes from one or another interest group (political parties, environmental groups, Maritime New Zealand, or the Government). As such, its accuracy is somewhat questionable. Instead I'm going to take the easy way out and limit my comments to perceptions rather than facts. As to facts, other than those I've listed in the previous paragraph (which I think are mostly uncontroversial), I'll leave you to sift through the information available and wait for a comprehensive and balanced feature to come out in a month or so.

There is a general perception floating around that the Government has not done nearly enough in response to this event. I hesitate to suggest that Martin 'Bomber' Bradbury can ever represent public opinion, but his blog post on Tumeke! is, for Bomber, remarkably restrained. If the idea of taking Bomber's word for it is just too much for you, then here's a nice clean Herald editorial for you that says pretty much the same thing.

The question is: why has the Government been so slow to respond, and was that the right approach?

I'm going to assume for now that what people like Gareth Hughes from the Greens are saying about the capacity for the Government to Act rather more decisively than it has done are broadly accurate (see his 7 October post at frogblog) and therefore that the Government have made a conscious choice not to do all that they could possibly do to minimise the impact of this situation.

I think, if that is the case, the reasoning must be to do with their plans to expand deep sea oil drilling in New Zealand, and their wider efforts to appease business interests generally. We might say that they're trying to downplay this incident because, as has been widely pointed out, it calls into question plans for oil and gas drilling (see BusinessDesk article at and New Zealand's preparedness to deal with any environmental risks that such activity creates. This also might be National starting to show its true colours in a more obvious way than it has done for most of this term of government by taking a staunchly hands-off approach to issues that impact on business interests.

If those assumptions are even remotely correct, then they would have been balanced against the obvious perceptions about environmental and local economic issues.

I think they've struck the wrong balance.

Environmental issues are important to the electorate at the moment. One doesn't have to look back any further than the controversy over mining in National Parks to see that people care about these issues. The world has not yet forgotten about the travesty that was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf Coast only a year ago.

According to the iPredict website, the Rena disaster may be contributing to a drop in National support corresponding to an increase in Labour and Greens support (see update from earlier today at Ex-New Zealand First MP Ron Mark has even gone so far as to ask whether the Greens organised "the grounding of that vessel" because of the obvious political windfall that this represents for them (his comments were on the web-only panel discussion following last week's TVNZ Q+A show, available at

The Government have underestimated the importance of the environment as an election issue for voters.

There's also a negative perception floating around following the Pike River disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes that this Government isn't decisive enough in the face of unexpected events. Now I'm not sure those criticisms are entirely justified in the context of Christchurch and Pike River, but that doesn't mean the feeling isn't out there. The Government should have jumped on the Rena situation as an opportunity to show that it can step up to the plate when it needs to. It seems to me that, being a much smaller scale disaster than either of the two already mentioned, this could have presented a quick-win for the Government. This is a Government that has consistently shown it has no hesitation about pushing the boundaries of legitimate executive power (consider the earthquake response legislation and the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Act). It seems at least plausible that a willingness to exert some centralised control and throw a bit of money at the problem might have meant the situation could have been very much mitigated during the early stages (particularly the first three days of clear weather during which nothing was done).

As well as underestimating the importance of environmental concerns, I think the Government has overestimated the damage that a more direct response would have done to the perceptions of the business community.

I think that, given the examples already cited (especially Deepwater Horizon) there is a recognition amongst big business that they, and the Government, have to tread carefully at the moment. I think the necessity for Government to be seen to be acting decisively would have been understood.

Similarly, if the response had been better handled then the criticisms about preparedness for the environmental risks posed by deep sea drilling would have had less to stand on. A small sacrifice for business autonomy here would have more than paid off in the long run if it contributed to a perception that environmental risks could be managed effectively. Instead, by trying to sweep the issue under the carpet the Government have turned what may have been a small obstacle into a widespread disaster.

As I said at the outset, the facts of this whole situation are remarkably difficult to pin down. There are all sorts of issues about the practicality of pumping oil off the ship; the necessity and difficulty of removing containers; the contents of the containers; the relative benefits and risks of using dispersants; the effectiveness of commercial salvage operations; and many other questions that have not been adequately answered. That's why I haven't made any effort to make a substantive argument about what the Government should do from an environmental or economic point of view - in order to do that one would require a lot more facts about what was actually going on. But even without a full picture of the facts, it's clear that there are political reasons for the Government to act quicker to respond to this situation. There is an election coming, after all.

Update: The Nick Smith comment reported by Toby Manhire appears to be his quote: "what is now clear to be New Zealand's worst environmental disaster in many decades" (video available at


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