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Is the MV Rena spill John Key's Corngate moment?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Is the MV Rena oil spill disaster John Key's 'Corngate' moment.

I say this because remember the furore that surrounded the release of Nicky Hager's book about GE on the previous Labour Government's efforts to suppress information about GE releases into the environment? Hager's book essentially alleged that officials had known of the release of some GE material from a Crown science agency lab into the environment and that this had been covered up by officials and the then Labour Government. At the ministerial level, Clark and then Environment Minister Marian Hobbs shouldered most of the blame.

The book was released just as the 2002 General Election campaign commenced. It then led to the most notorious media/political stoush since the Muldoon years when Clark snarled at John Campbell on TV3 that he was "a little twerp" for having the nerve (and I think the guts) to ask questions to the then PM about the alleged cover up. Up until that point, Clark and Labour had enjoyed a formidable lead in the opinion polls and an early election had been called to capitalise on this.

In the few weeks after that interview aired, though, Clark and Labour dropped some 10 to 12 points in the polls and ended up taking only 41 percent of the vote on the night (even though this was a two percentage point increase on Labour's 1999 result).

Fast forward to this week. Another Prime Minister whose party and himself personally were looking like a sure bet for re-election. And then environmental catastrophe strikes.

Again, as with Clark, under pressure from an un-relenting media pack, Key displayed his real, true character. His retort on TV3's Campbell Live this week of "Show me how you'd go faster. Show me how you'd do anything different?" really missed the point. Of course, Key is not to blame for the disaster but at the Government end he and Transport Minister Steven Joyce are responsible for coordinating the response. Key himself set the standard for good crisis response in his handling of the Pike River and Canterbury earthquake tragedies. However, on this crisis, he and Joyce have been found wanting, a point that has been made by even right leaning commentators such as John Roughan, Paul Holmes and John Armstrong.

What could Key have done better? Well, he could have been on top of events from the get go as he knew about the disaster early on. Yes, it is true that Key had been in contact with Joyce and Maritime New Zealand. But that's how far his initial response went. To this extent, I am in rare agreement with Paul Holmes who said that the PM could have convened an emergency meeting of all government ministers and agencies who had something to do with the spill within hours of the tragedy happening so that a more coordinated response could have evolved. But even his and Joyce's failure to do this could cost them at the polls. I still think that the Nats will be returned to government but they will not now get an outright majority. 

Therefore, as Labour's hopes of an outright majority had been dashed in 2002, so has National's in 2011.

I think that my forecast of National winning at least 43-44 percent of the vote will be proven correct on the day. But the greatest beneficiaries of this past week's disaster will be the Greens and not Labour. I expect their vote could even peak at around 15 percent this year and they (not New Zealand First, ACT, United Future or the Maori or Mana parties) will be left holding the balance of power come November 26. 

If such a result transpires, then we will see the rather nauseating spectacle of both Labour and National politicians wooing the Greens by claiming how green they really were in government. But as we all know, the record of both parties on environmental matters hasn't been all that great.

But for John Key and National, the MV Rena spill could be the beginning of a slow, downhill slide as Corngate proved to be for Labour.


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