How soon is too soon to ask the government how it intends to pay for rebuilding Christchurch? A spat has broken out on the blogs about where politics starts and stops, but who's kidding whom?
Good grief. Two of our largest right-wing blog sites have got their angry faces on about left-wing blogs advocating tax increases to pay for the rebuild of Christchurch. It seems such blogging is "ghastly opportunism" or "muck" that disrespects those who died in the earthquake.
Sure, no-one finds party politics tasteful at a time of nationwide grieving; some of the posts on The Standard and Tumeke, which David Farrar at Kiwiblog and Cactus Kate are cross about, are a little ahead of the public taste and feeling and may have jumped the gun. For many New Zealanders, this has been a time to focus on what unites us, and fair enough.
But are advocating certain tax views horribly offensive? Hardly. Is there anything wrong with discussing how to pay for the rebuild at this stage, or even last week? I can't see it. When exactly is an appropriate day to start this discussion? And why is talking about funding options in particular, as opposed to architecture styles or anything else about the rebuild, so offensive? Is it "name-calling" to suggest one minister is better suited to a task than another? Plus, these are blogs, not mainstream media. I'm not sure the need to mirror public taste is quite the same, is it?
As I say, good grief. And I'll add a puh-lease.
And who are Kate and David to criticise? Are two bloggers who hate the nanny state so much really wanting to be the taste police? Have they never been out of touch with public sensibilities? They have indulged in shock blogging or no-holds-barred writing before, and in permitting some frankly nasty threads on their sites.
Indeed, in Kate's first rant, she writes, "Years of generous over-spending on welfare to those who haven't really needed it, have led to a position now where John Key is going to the world with the begging bowl and asking for help."
If that's not a political statement, what is? So why is that OK on Tuesday, but not on Monday?
Farrar, for his part, writes: For fuck’s sake – couldn’t that [advocating tax increases and asking the PM to rule funding options in or out] wait until you know after we’ve stopped pulling bodies from the rubble?
That could be weeks or months away. Is all public debate to be censored in the meantime? Is the media to stop asking questions? Is parliament to be suspended until the last funeral?
I also wonder why this pair don't they include right-winger Not PC in their fury, given that he put up a "timely" guest post on Monday – before the two minutes of silence on Tuesday – advocating for Christchurch to be a tax-free zone?
As that post begins: "Thought is already being given to the recovery of Christchurch, and the repercussions that this disaster will have on the New Zealand economy..."
People, at least those outside of Christchurch who have the luxury of doing so, are talking about how we pay for this, so why not discuss it? The government has asked Treasury to start crunching numbers. Is that rude too?
Indeed, not discussing it and getting a strop on about those who have started discussing it seems to be a political, even partisan act in itself. It's hard to ignore that their language of attack is not against individuals, but against 'left-wingers' and "Labour lap-bloggers".
To take a step back, the question of timing is one that sits heavy on the shoulders of anyone in the media. Here at Pundit, I waited until Monday to talk about the economics of the issue, allowing, as I saw it, for the raw feeling to ease. But that was a personal sense and question of taste.
Would writing that piece on Sunday have broken some ethical law? I think not.
Media have had to decide how much coverage is too much... when to raise certain topics... when to pull back coverage without looking like they're abandoning Christchurch. Such calls are made along the lines of taste and decency, but anyone saying that commercial considerations play no part is a liar.
Politicians make similar calculations, except for 'commercial', read 'political'.
The Pike River explosion last year offered similar challenges. Q+A goes to air on a Sunday, which just happened to be three days after the second explosion that confirmed all in the mine were dead. We debated long and hard how to approach that programme.
We paid our respects, we moderated our tone, but we decided that doing our job and asking hard questions showed more respect to those who died than waiting. Many other media didn't ask similar questions for some time after, but I remain immensely proud of that programme and the answers we got.
My hope is always that if sensitivity and humanity clashes with the other considerations, it triumphs. But to pretend that a tension doesn't exist or that the rest of the real world stops when disaster strikes is ridiculous – and a little rich coming from the typically hard-headed, real politik right. And to ask citizens to stop debating and the media to stop interrogating is nonsense.
Ask yourself, are Kate and David really trying to pretend that politics just stops when a tragedy occurs? Are they really claiming that no-one – no-one – in their beloved government has stopped to consider the economic – and yes, the political – implications of this quake in the past week? That any decision on cutting government funding or increasing borrowing or introducing a levy is not political, and isn't already under discussion?
And that goes for the other parties as well.
Of course politicians have started thinking about how to pay for this and the impact this has on the election and their preferred policies. The latter is natural, given their jobs and how they get them. The former is called leadership. I like the idea that my country's leaders can govern and grieve at the same time, not be stunned into inaction. That the media which informs me can offer tribute and challenge simultaneously. And that fellow citizens can be talking about what happens next, even as they grapple with the horror of what happened just days before.
And if the people in charge are starting to look at options, then it's entirely proper for the people who monitor the people in charge to start asking questions. Indeed, it's vital.
Where David and Kate get it right, is to challenge (rather than abuse) politicians on the left if they fear they are leveraging the tragedy to push their agenda. Yet David has to be very careful when he assumes that Russel Norman is insincere and grandstanding in pushing for a tax increase to pay for the rebuild. Could Norman not be advocating that in good faith, just as John Key, within days of the earthquake, could have been acting in good faith when he poured cold water on the idea of a special levy?
And why is his damning of the Greens acceptable, yet Marty G's vent against National disgraceful? I don't see either of them presenting evidence to justify their claims.
As Farrar says, it's not in good taste to be "using the earthquake" for political ends. And that's true whatever your clique or party. Here's hoping he would be just as horrified if National was to cut interest-free student loans, rail spending or KiwiSaver funding as a result of the quake.
In the meantime, let's keep praying/hoping for miracles, do all we can to support those hard at work in Christchurch, and start a free and frank discussion about what comes next.