Events, my dear boy, events

by Jake Quinn

Where do we stand? It feels as if the devastating Christchurch earthquake has sent New Zealand’s election year pre-campaign period the way of the Census. What does this mean for our political process and in particular what does it mean for the Left’s chances in election 2011? While discussing the political fallout of such a tragic event may seem distasteful to some, not doing so ignores the reality that national disasters have political implications.

Politics has been cancelled for the time being – which would be expected – so the next question is “when would it be reasonable for it to resume?” This is probably what the leaders of the Opposition parties in New Zealand are asking themselves, when they get a moment away from digging up liquefied driveways, rallying troops of volunteers and making cups of tea.

The government doesn’t need to worry about this though, and for good reason. In a time of severe crisis it is their prerogative to put petty (or even important) politics to one side and oversee the recovery mission, which in Christchurch’s case is like nothing New Zealand has seen since the 7.9 magnitude Napier earthquake of 1931 which killed 256 people. A quake that my grandmother survived, on her first day of school.

Let’s consider where the Left bloc is now. The leading Left party’s position in the polls has been poor when compared to their main opposition. Labour has hovered around the 32 percent mark, while National has consistently been 20 percentage points ahead – the polls showing National either able to govern alone or with the support of a few additional MPs.

Even when considering coalition partners (or the blocs of ideologically connected parties), the Left needed an acute event (a political scandal, an international crisis with links to home, a run on the currency, etc.) which had the possibility of putting them in a position to form a government after this year’s election.

Unfortunately (and tragically) an acute event occurred, a severe natural disaster. The political fall out of this event however is unlikely to harm the current government’s popularity or raise that of the oppositions. On the contrary, pending Hurricane Katrina-esk ineptitude in the government’s response to the earthquake, support will likely solidify behind the current government. This will be helped by solid rescue and response coordination by the authorities, which by most media accounts in the immediate aftermath seemed to have been the case (this may well change however).

The government will also be helped by the tight relationship between Christchurch’s simply superb orator of a Mayor Bob Parker and the Prime Minister, who will support each other, feed off each other’s public performances (staying on, and coordinating, key messages) and avoid the potential for muck-raking you could have imagined had last year’s Christchurch mayoral elections had a different result.

So, all in all, the side-lining of politics while the government deals with the earthquake recovery (and with a hearty lead in the polls behind it) means, I would hazard to guess (and I hope I’m wrong), that the likelihood of a Left bloc victory in 2011 has been reduced as a result of this national disaster.

As the former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously said, the greatest challenge of a Statesman is: “Events, my dear boy, events”.