Is the government responsible for the Rena disaster? Is it to blame? Does it matter?
Since the Rena ran aground and began spilling oil and other nastiness into the Bay of Plenty, there has been a lot of finger pointing at the government. Was it prepared? Was the response too slow to get going? Was the response good enough?
In response, some government supporters are arguing that this disaster, like Pike River and like the Christuchurch earthquake, really isn't the government’s fault. One colourful example of this message, shared almost 100 times on Facebook, said beside a picture of John Key:
“I didn't put the boat on the reef and I’m not a bloody magician. Back the f**k off!”
Is that an effective defence of the government by its supporters?
There are plenty of historical events that were obviously not the fault of the incumbent government, but that incumbent governments were probably punished for anyway. Nobody thinks Hurricane Katrina was caused by President Bush. And nobody thinks the French onslaught in the 1999 Rugby World Cup was caused by Jenny Shipley.
If governments didn’t cause the events, we can’t really blame them when the events happen, right?
Not so fast. For some of these events, it is entirely appropriate to judge the incumbent government for its response to unforeseen events. Should they have been foreseen? How was the cleanup managed? Did the government do enough to look after the people caught up in the mess? That is what makes Hurricane Katrina different from l'Ouragan Christophe Lamaison. With Katrina voters got to legitimately ask their leaders how well prepared they were for the event, and how well they handled it when it came. With Lamaison, not so much.
In the Rena case, it seems clear that there is room for government action. Government can regulate the maritime industry so that disasters are less likely to occur, it can prepare effective contingency plans for coping with the disaster, and it can respond in various ways when the disaster occurs. Indeed, our government is taking action in all of those areas. But any time there is room for government action, there is also room for questioning whether the government’s particular choice of action was the right one. And that is all we are seeing with the Rena. I don’t see how raising questions about a particular government response justifies an aggressive “back the f**k off” response.
Of course, trying to tell voters what it is “legitimate” for them to care about in the first place is both a waste of time and also elitist, undemocratic nonsense. People get to care about whatever they want, whether nerdy political chatter-class folk think it meets their standards for proper democratic engagement or not.
Indeed, there is growing evidence from the US that people vote the basis of all kinds of events, some of which have no earthly connection to politics at all. From the "they research things so you don't have to" file, Chris Achen and Larry Bartels at Princeton have discovered that Woodrow Wilson’s 1916’s presidential campaign was damaged by a spate of shark attacks along the now infamous Jersey Shore. Those shoreline counties that experienced the shark attacks voted for Wilson 3% less than otherwise equivalent areas spared the Great White Wrath. They found similar effects for droughts and flu outbreaks. With some of these events, there is a case to be made about government response. But expecting the government to prevent all shark attacks using 1916 technology, which was basically a scary shark sign and a whistle, is totally unreasonable.
Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo at Stanford found even clearer evidence that voters punish governments for events they have absolutely no responsibility for. They looked at sport. Do towns whose college football (gridiron) team won the week before an election vote for the incumbent more than towns whose college football team lost? There can be no argument about government responsibility for this, and no argument about government cleaning up the mess. To find out, they collated 40 years of pre-election football scores, and lined them up against county-level vote totals. It turns out a pre-election football win causes about a 1% increase in the vote for the incumbent, compared to an otherwise equivalent town that suffered a loss. The effect is bigger in more ravenous football towns.
I guess some insiders could see these patterns as evidence of how stupid the people are and how the best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter. I just see it as luck. There is plenty of luck in the world. Sometimes it graces you and sometimes it doesn’t. If you are a person who enjoys and hopes for good luck (say, hoping an All Blacks win the RWC will rub off on the PM at the polls), then maybe you should be just a little gracious when bad luck strikes, too.
To sum up:
1. It is legitimate to question government actions when governments are taking action;
2. It is not legitimate to try and constrain what it is legitimate for people to think about;
3. Therefore the government’s supporters should stop telling people concerned about the impact of government action or inaction on the Bay of Plenty environment to “back the f**k off.”