Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Politics of Disaster

During last years Federal Election campaign, there was a lot of pundit speak about how the struggling Labor Governments in New South Wales and Queensland may hamper Federal Labor's chances in those states. And by struggling, we mean 'thoroughly despised.' So badly were both of those Governments travelling, and so entrenched had voter dislike of them become, it was considered a rock solid, lay down, close the betting markets certainty that both would drag Federal Labor's vote down and both would be turfed out at the first available opportunity.

This is now true only in New South Wales.

Last November, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh faced polls that showed her Government's primary vote on 28% and her own approval rating at 25% (with 70% disapproving), figures that indicate electoral oblivion. This week, as raging flood waters swept through her state and Mrs Bligh worked tirelessly to try and keep spirits up and keep people informed (no mean feat, doing these simultaneously), more than one daily newspaper referred to her as a 'hero.' When things return to something resembling normal, she can expect to see her standing in the polls considerably strengthened.

Such is the dramatic nature of The Politics of Disaster.

Now this is not to suggest that Bligh has done this deliberately, or tried to milk the flood disaster for her own benefit. Far from it. Throughout, she has been hard working, diligent, compassionate and is obviously trying her best to try and manage the still developing crisis as well as it can be managed.

The point is, Anna Bligh has always been hard working, diligent and compassionate - she's a very down to earth, no frills sort of person - and these character traits had lead her to a point where, before the flood crisis, people spat on the ground whenever they mentioned her name. She is the same, the extraordinary circumstances that she and her state find themselves in are what is different.

Nevertheless, she is going to reap a benefit in both plaudits and polls, due to her conduct so far.

But The Politics of Disaster is a fickle thing. For evidence of this, and the flipside of Bligh's experience, we need look no further than the other woman involved in the disaster this week. And by this we mean none other than Julia Gillard. C'mon, you remember her... You know, the Prime Minister!

In any case, Gillard's efforts during the flood crisis were much the same as Bligh's; she toured affected regions, repeatedly briefed the media and freed up as much emergency cash as the Government could spare. She even stood behind the Queensland Premier while she gave one of her tear streaked, highly emotional and highly popular press conferences:

And her reward for these efforts? A mild to severe case of loathing and revulsion. Gillard was described, at various times this week, as 'cold,' 'aloof,' 'disengaged' and that she 'doesn't appear to care.'

As noted, the difference between Gillard's and Bligh's performances over the past week or so is only minimal. But the perception of the differences in their performance is stark; hero on one side, cold hearted bitch on the other. What we can take from this is that The Politics of Disaster is a complex and unpredictable thing. People are highly emotional in times of crisis and their judgments not always rational. Political leaders can even experience the whole spectrum of emotions going from hero to bitch/villain in the space of just a few days or weeks.

Some more examples from recent political history further illustrates the point:

Example 1: John Brumby versus The Victorian Bushfires
The then Labor Premier started out pretty well in the crisis management stakes. Similar to Bligh, Brumby was a dour, reserved sort of guy and his grave, solid demeanour was what the public wanted to see as large parts of Victoria burned up. But Brumby proved less adept at managing the recovery, as reconstruction moved slowly and the Royal Commission he instigated produced a series of recommendations that he didn't want to implement (compulsory buybacks of property among other things). His standing was subsequently damaged, although he probably managed to break even overall.

Example 2: George W. Bush versus Al Qaida and Hurricane Katrina
The drawling, cowboy inflected, wannabe macho Texan saw both sides of The Politics of Diaster, although with each separated by several years. The 9/11 terrorist bombings probably saved his presidency, after he had made a mediocre start in the wake of the 2000 election controversy. A drawling, macho, cowboy was exactly what America wanted after the terrorist attack had shaken them and, since, no real ones were available, Bush made an acceptable substitute. His approval ratings soared above 90% as a result. But flash forward to 2005 and this schtick was completely wrong for the Hurricane Katrina disaster (which called more for a diligent, Bligh style approach). It appeared for a time that Bush either didn't know where New Orleans was, or didn't care that most of the poor people living there had drowned. Sending Dick Cheney in to tour the aftermath probably wasn't a great idea either:

Bush's long slide in the opinion polls started shortly after.

Example 3: Barack versus the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
The boy wonder President was determined not to repeat Bush's mistakes, when a giant oil spill threatened the same part of the country as Katrina. He got his hands dirty as soon as he could; touring the area repeatedly, addressing the nation in prime time, massaging cash assistance through Congress, even taking his holiday there to try and help the tourist industry. He reaped some initial rewards for his efforts but, as the weeks and then months dragged on and oil continued to flow, support for his efforts began to collapse. It seemed almost as if, by working so hard to try and solve the problem and being so omni-present around it, Barack had himself become associated with the leak... and then blamed for it. Damage was undoubtedly done to his standing as a result of this, although how much remains to be seen.

And this is the problem that may lie in the future for the Queensland Premier. While her constituents are united behind her at the moment, the flood crisis has a long way to run. And once the waters start to subside, a massive reconstruction effort will need to be overseen by a Government who's poor record in competent service delivery had lead to their hopeless position in the polls last year. And people living in temporary shelters while they wait for the Government to declare their houses safe to return to are understandably impatient.

The Politics of Disaster will also demand that the Queensland Opposition, after a brief period of bipartisanship, will almost immediately begin to criticise all of the Government's reconstruction efforts as slow, inefficient, cheapskate and completely bloody useless. In this scenario, Bligh's diligent, hard working public demeanour, which is serving her so well at the moment, may become a liability again, as she may not seem to be energetic or vigorous as she should be. She's a plodder, is Bligh, not a racehorse and people without electricity or with a front yard full of dead fish and garbage,

often want a racehorse.

The Queensland Premier, like the population of her state, has a large and difficult time ahead of her. We wish her well.

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