The real meaning of Rena
The accident off Tauranga is certainly lamentable. Nobody likes the sight of oil-flecked beaches and dead birds. In context, though, the wreck hardly rates as an environmental disaster. It has closed a handful of beaches, and killed about a thousand birds. But as many as twenty-five million birds are killed by predators - stoats, ferrets, rats, cats, dogs - every year in New Zealand, and whole lakes and streams in regions like the Waikato have been rendered off-limits by pollution from dairy farms. I'd rather try to swim off Tauranga than at Ngaroto, the historic lake southwest of Hamilton which has for years now been infested by noxious weeds fed by the poisons that flow and seep from surrounding farms.
National's handling of the Rena wreck certainly seems to have lacked competence and compassion - Steve Joyce, the overburdened Minister charged with responding to the wreck, didn't even turn up in Tauranga until four days after the event - but that is hardly surprising. National has failed to offer any practical response to the impact of the global economic crisis on this country, and its reactions to the Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River Mine explosion have not been particularly empathetic.
Why, then, has there been such an outcry over the wreck off Tauranga? Why is this and not some other issue eroding support for the government? To answer these questions we have to consider the peculiar way many New Zealanders see their country, and the peculiar but not quite unprecedented relationship they have developed with John Key over the past three years.
In one of the many caustic asides in his relentlessly amusing autobiography The Gatekeeper, Terry Eagleton mocked the obsession that middle class Westerners have with their health. Eagleton pointed out that the advocates of 'detoxification' and special diets and other fads always present sickness as some alien presence inside the body. 'Health' is, for neurotic Westerners, all about guarding the body against alien intrusion. The notions that sickness might be the flipside of health, and that certain illnesses might be inevitable, are anathema to many contemporary Westerners.
It seems to me that New Zealanders - Pakeha New Zealanders, in particular - have long had a tendency to think about their island nation as something apart from, and in many respects better than, the rest of the world. This tendency has been encouraged by the relative isolation of New Zealand, and by the way it avoided the foreign occupations and revolutions which were visited on so many other countries at one or another time in the twentieth century. New Zealand is a healthy body, we think, and if it becomes sick, the sickness will have come from outside.
During times of crisis the need of Kiwis to think themselves apart from and safe from the rest of the world becomes particularly intense. During the Great Depression of the 1930s New Zealanders developed a deep affection for Michael Joseph Savage, the outwardly amiable leader of the country's first Labour government. Savage's government is remembered nowadays for its progressive reforms, but these measures were largely the work of left-wing Cabinet Ministers like John A Lee rather than the Prime Minister. Savage's popularity came from the kindly, almost avuncular image he projected to voters, and from his ability to assure them that New Zealand would be spared the wholesale destitution and the civil wars which the Depression was inspiring elsewhere.
Over the past three years the determinedly affable John Key has managed to be, like Savage, a reassuring figure in a time of crisis. Again and again he has told Kiwis that their country is different from and apart from the rest of the world, and won't suffer the economic meltdowns and social turmoil seen in places like Iceland, Greece and Spain. The idea that economic and political crises might arise in New Zealand because of contradictions already present inside our country - the contradiction between capital and labour, and between the dictates of the market and the needs of communities - seems as alien to Key as it still is to most Kiwis. The wreck of Rena has cast doubt on Key's reassurances of safety. On a practical level, the wreck has shown that twenty-first century New Zealand, with its globalised, deindustrialised and deregulated economy, struggles to deal even with a minor environmental emergency. On a symbolic level, the wreck of the Rena represents the invasion of the healthy body of New Zealand by a dangerous alien. With its dodgy captain, Liberian flag of convenience, low wage Third World crew, and leaking oil, the Rena is the emissary of a chaotic and deeply undesirable outside world.
Is it a surprise that the crew of Rena, who were blameless for the mistakes of their captain, were subjected to so much public vitriol and so many threats of violence that they quickly had to be spirited out of New Zealand? The reception given to these men shows us the paranoia and xenophobia which go hand in hand with New Zealanders' sense of themselves as apart from and safe from the rest of the world.
The response to the wreck on Astrolabe Reef also shows the fragility of the government's popularity. If the public begins to suspect that John Key is incapable of keeping New Zealand safe from alien forces, or if it begins to suspect that New Zealand has its own, homegrown crises brewing, then it will turn on National.
[Posted by Maps]