Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Politicising Disasters

Natural disasters, tragedies, accidents and other bad events are prime opportunities for opposition parties to attack the incumbent government. Such criticism inevitably results in cries of outrage from the other side, decrying this "politicising" of a disaster. There's two recent examples of this from the southern states of Australia. The Victorian opposition picked up a worthy cause after a train crossing accident in Victoria:
Country level crossings were "death traps" and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau should be called in to investigate the fatal collision between a high-speed V/Line train and a truck on Friday, Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder said yesterday.

Resulting in cries of feux outrage:
Yesterday, Mr Batchelor rejected Opposition calls for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to investigate the crash.

He said comments by Liberal transport spokesman Terry Mulder were "just plain wrong".

"I think the comments that the Opposition have made here in Victoria are quite frankly disgusting," Mr Batchelor said.

"I was there on Friday at the crash site and at the hospital … I don't think it's appropriate for the Liberal Party here to be trying to make political mileage."

And when the federal opposition attempted to make a political point over a mine collapse in Tasmania:
The opposition leader has said the safety training received by trapped miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb has helped them survive, and such union-led training would not be delivered under the government's new workplace reforms.

The federal workplace minister pulled out the old "apologise!" chestnut:
"This again proves that Mr Beazley has just blundered into this without getting his facts right.

"The real issue is that Kim Beazley got it wrong, he was insensitive about it and he should apologise."

Mr Andrews said the government's Work Choices legislation left occupational health and safety in the hands of state and territory governments.

Now, there's not too much to say on each of these individual issues. As I hinted earlier, I think level crossings are an aspect of public transport that needs genuine work in Victoria, but I can't see it getting to the point where every rural level crossing is turned into an overpass. There's definately an argument for better signalling on such crossings, though. As for Kevin Andrew's assertion that safety is a state issue, he's right, but he completely missed Kim Beazley's point. It seems that another one of the new "freedom"-enhancing contractual restrictions brought about by the new IR laws is that union safety training clauses can no longer form a part of workplace agreements. I'm not sure how applicable such safety training is to situations like that in Tasmania (the opposition says it was crucial, I don't know if I believe them but maybe) but that sounds like a fair point to make to me - workplace accidents might increase with less safety training.

Anyway, the incumbent government's outrage in these and countless other examples attempts to draw on some apparently inviolable principle that you're not allowed to politicise tragedies. Rubbish. Nothing ever happens in the political realm without tragedies to focus the public's attention. What's wrong with using a human disaster to highlight a particular problem? Obviously you've got to be sensitive to the victims' relatives in doing so, but there should be no stigma attached to trying to make political mileage off an issue which has been brought to light by a particular disaster.

Equally obviously there should be some connection between the issue you're bringing up and the issue you're linking it to. So, for example, placing anti-union provisions in an otherwise unrelated homeland security bill in order to get Democrats to vote against homeland security legislation they originaly wrote so that you can make political mileage by painting Democrats as soft on the perpetrators of 9/11 is the very, very wrong type of politicising a disaster. But there's nothing wrong, in principle, with the response of opposition parties to the disasters outlined above.


  • My hunch is anything goes when it comes to using tragic events to make a point, so long as the right tone is taken.

    As soon as it looks cynical, the benefit evaporates. Instead, a pollie needs to strike the right pose, perfect the right look, and utter the phrase "These circumstances are utterly tragic, but..."

    By Blogger -A., at 6:57 PM  

  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking advantage of an event - disastrous, tragic or otherwise - for personal gain. If the opportunity presents itself and you can get away with it, why not?

    Politics, whether on a national level or within the confines of an organisation (e.g. office politics) is a bloody business, and it takes a certain ruthless bloody-mindedness, as well as the mandatory cunning and deviousness, to come out on top. It's a dirty game - you have to play dirty to win. Remember, 90% of people are morons, while the next 5% are merely imbeciles - they will buy your crocodile tears and ad hoc arguments, not recognising the motives behind those crocodle tears. You only need 50% to win.

    Sure, if don't mind losing and the thought of being 'morally superior' leaves a nice warm feeling in your heart (the heat no doubt radiating from the toasted marshmallows which form the sturdiest portion of your resolve), then go ahead and pass up such opportunities. Your opponents, I promise, will not reciprocate. Politics is a battlefield, and the rewards are considerable. The ends justify the means - if there's a tragedy you can exploit, milk it for all it's worth.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:31 PM  

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