Gordon Campbell on disaster politics

9b2c44c5340890926273Most of us have been the CEOs of our own lives for long enough to realise that Cyclone Gabrielle has done a massive amount of destruction that will be very expensive to fix. Some people have lost everything. Extensive damage has been done to roads, houses, and to water, energy, and communications systems. There will be costly compensation packages for firms, farmers and fruit and vegetable growers. If we want to fully future proof the nation’s infrastructure, we’re talking billions.

All the more bizarre then, that National Party leader Christopher Luxon is actively seeking to reduce government revenue, by still advocating for tax cuts. It is as if Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland anniversary weekend floods have yet to register on the soundbite factory inside his brain. As Jaime Ensor reported on Newshub:

Treasury chief executive Dr Caralee McLiesh told the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee on Wednesday that there would be significant costs from the “unprecedented and evolving situation”.

“The full economic and financial cost will take some time to realise. We know the biggest economic costs are going to be in the form of lost capital and lost economic opportunity.” A team has been stood up within Treasury to analyse the effects of the cyclone….

Luxon was later asked if National could still deliver tax cuts considering the expected bills from the cyclone damage. “Absolutely,” he responded.

This commitment was followed by a classic piece of Luxonian blather:

What we have got to make sure is we do a proper assessment of what the damage actually is and what support is really needed and then we make sure we apply those funds with good economic responsibility and we are prudent economic managers because it is taxpayers dollars and most important is we actually get things done.”

Let’s put the problem with this in a way that Luxon might understand. You may be surprised to hear that he used to run an airline. But given the current realities, his continued advocacy for tax cuts is like reducing the fuel carried on an Air New Zealand plane before you know the distance it has to fly to reach its destination.

In the National ranks at the moment, there’s a basic disconnect between reality and ideology. Details are not National’s strong suit. But neither is consistency. Amidst the dire warnings about the perils of co-governance, it is worth keeping in mind that it was under a National -led government that Whanau Ora was launched. Lest we forget…Whanau Ora had the delivery of public services to Maori, by Maori, as its founding principle.

So why is National now demonising co-governance, when in its last period in government, it helped put the Maori Party’s concept of self determination into practice? On the centre right, Chris Finlayson’s assurances that we have nothing to fear and much to gain from co-governance, are still falling on deaf ears.

The grim reality is that National is willing to be everything to anybody to win votes, while hoping that these various audiences never get into the same room and compare notes. That’s why a few weeks ago, National deputy Nicola Willis could decry the rise in the minimum wage (to woo small business), while Luxon immediately had to re-assure the hundreds of thousands of voters struggling to make ends meet – there’s a ‘cost of living’ crisis! – that a National government will not rule out making further increases in the minimum wage.

Disaster politics

Even at the best of times, people like to feel their leaders are competent at minding the store. When disaster then strikes, the subsequent feelings of insecurity are presumed to work to the advantage of the party in power. People will rally round each other at first, and then look to central and local government, for help, or even to the Defence Forces. (Once the rivers have burst their banks, libertarians are always thin on the ground.)

That said, disaster politics only favour the incumbent if the people in power seem to know what they’re doing. Perceptions formed during hard times readily get baked in. Across the Tasman for instance, the Australian public never forgave PM Scott Morrison for deciding to take a holiday in Hawaii while bushfires were raging through Victoria and New South Wales.

Likewise, US President George W. Bush bungled his initial responses to 9/11, and to Hurricane Katrina a few years later. Bush’s very personal fluffing of the preparation for and early response to the Katrina disaster is set out in grim detail here. In sum:

[Bush’s] supporters said later that his slow reaction and the weak federal, state and local response to the hurricane undermined Bush’s reputation for being an effective crisis manager and a decisive leader. And his reputation never improved even though he later made repeated visits to the hurricane zone and steered billions of federal dollars into recovery programs.

As with Bush, Auckland mayor Wayne Brown may never recover from his missing-in-action performance during the floods that swamped his city at anniversary weekend. Almost overnight, Brown diminished public expectations about his leadership abilities so thoroughly that very few Aucklanders were looking to the mayor’s office for re-assurance during the Cyclone Gabrielle storm. Thankfully, such examples tend to be the exceptions.


Overall, New Zealanders can be thankful that when disasters have struck here recently, our central and local body politicians ( eg. Bob Parker) have largely risen to the challenge. It helps that communities are also at their best at such times. Once the Pike River tragedy happened, PM John Key displayed the interpersonal skills required, and did so again during his personal response to the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes. It was Gerry Brownlee’s handling of the Christchurch rebuild that copped most of the criticism.

As for Labour, the mosque killings, the Whakaari White Island tragedy, and the Covid pandemic all happened on Jacinda Ardern’s watch. As we all know, Ardern earned international acclaim and domestic support for the quality of her response. Chris Hipkins of course, had barely taken over the top job when catastrophic weather events hit the country. So far, Hipkins has responded with the same unpretentious communication skills he demonstrated during the early days of the pandemic.

No doubt, all of this is proving to be very frustrating for the Opposition. After months of heavily promoting the idea of the government’s innate incompetence, National and ACT have seen the cyclone give Labour a golden opportunity to prove the exact opposite. In addition, government ministers have been at the top of the news bulletins almost every night. Suddenly, Luxon is at serious risk of looking like Simon Bridges circa May 2020 i.e. the carping guy on the side-lines being negative, and looking irrelevant.

In a bad case of sour grapes, ACT Party leader David Seymour has even complained about how “Labour loves its disaster politics” – as if Cyclone Gabrielle has been some kind of socialist plot to make Labour look good. Seymour should bide his time. It is not the response to the immediate devastation that really matters. As Brownlee would confirm, it’s the putting it right that counts.

As mentioned above, the devastation inflicted by Gabrielle is going to be immensely expensive to fix. The good news, as Grant Robertson has already pointed out, is that New Zealand is uniquely well placed to borrow any money it may need for the big infrastructural repair (and future proofing) work. That aside, there will still be plenty of chances over the coming months for the opposition to play the grievance card, if it so chooses.

Already, Chris Hipkins has made it clear that he is a risk-averse politician. It would be surprising though, if he entirely passes up this chance to advocate for significant policies (and regulations) in response to the threats posed by climate change. The post-Gabrielle environment offers another rare chance for the government to rewrite what is deemed to be politically possible. Voters will be looking to the government now, more than ever, to provide them with adequate protection against the next round of weather-borne threats being sent our way by the warming of the planet.

Footnote: Talking of opportunities… As the government hands out Gabrielle compensation packages to all and sundry, wouldn’t this be the ideal time to raise benefit levels? The people and communities in Northland, East Cape, Gisborne, Flaxmere, Wairoa etc etc were already subsisting on perilously low incomes, even before the cyclone struck. The benefit system is a delivery mechanism that’s already in place. All it awaits is a centre-left government willing to top it up.

Jamaica shows the way

When it hit in September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert proved to be one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the Caribbean. Yet after people who had nothing lost their little bits of everything, the storm still inspired this infectious, incredibly optimistic hit track by Lovindeer.

But when it comes to songs about mighty storms, it’s still hard to top the track below by Sin-Killer Griffen and congregation. There is some debate about which Galveston storm he’s singing about. Despite what it says in the opening line, Galvestion didn’t have a seawall at the time of the great flood of 1900, which is still America’s worst natural disaster. The Galveston seawall wasn’t completed until 1904.

That means the city did have a seawall when the Galveston hurricane of August 1915 blew into town. Even so, the line about ‘train on the foreshore ‘line still sounds like 1900, according to events related by Eric Larsen in his terrific history of the disaster, called Isaac’s Storrm.

To really complicate things, Griffen sings about 1900 being only 15 years ago… Which it plainly wasn’t when he was being recorded by John Lomax in 1934. But 1915 plus 15 brings us much closer to 1934, right? My wild guess is that it’s a song written in 1915, about the big flood of 1900, and that the seawall line got chucked in – as songs about the Titanic were inclined to do as well – to show the futility of human attempts to ward off the meteorological wrath of God.