As black waves wash in to the Mount today from Rena, and political gods laugh in the face of adversity, has the tide turned for our PM and risen for the Greens?
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer man at a better time.
Is this, finally, the hairline crack in the impregnable hull? - will the Rena oil spill be the thing that exposes what lies beneath Mr Key, and swamps whatever public appetite there was for his government's offshore oil policy, little enough at the best of times?
Unless you've been under a rock: Rena ran aground a week ago, last Wednesday. It was one ordinary ship, in the mouth of our largest port; we were blessed by tranquil weather that persisted for a full five days.
Environment Minister Nick Smith says that what we are seeing now was “inevitable after the ship ran aground”. There are some different views: a salvage expert this morning on RNZ said oil recovery could have taken two days - not five. Booms were not deployed around the ship; again, there's dispute about whether they could have been. Eventually some were found for, for example, the mouth of the Maketu estuary, where endangered dotterels and five of our remaining 43 fairy terns live. 43 of those little birds. That is all.
The rock the ship is on, the Astrolabe Reef, is deemed by the regional council to be of “significant conservation value”. Reports this week have described the waters, accurately, as “teeming with life”, “pristine”, with conservationists warning of a. “wildlife tragedy” that will affect whales and seals and many many seabirds - an international scale conservation incident, at the worst time of year.
The Rena’s 1700 tonnes of oil, of which a few hundred have washed into the environment in our "worst maritime environmental incident", is a drop in the ocean compared to how much spewed from the Deepwater Horizon, a year ago in the Gulf.
Whereas the government insists the response was swift, the NZ Herald editorial yesterday called it “distressingly slow”: “Four days passed with no sign of assistance for the ship or efforts to lighten its load or contain the oil slick forming around it.”
The editor, unamused by political efforts to divert attention to "serious questions" about how the boat ran aground, summed up: “How it happened and who was at fault are issues that can wait. Right now we need to know what can be done to refloat the ship or remove its oil and any other pollutants it may be carrying before it breaks and sinks.”
And, “Environmentalists are fairly asking why a country that depends upon oil imports is not better equipped to deal with a maritime emergency. They also wonder how the Government can contemplate offshore oil drilling when the country is so lamentably ill-equipped to deal with a spill.”
One of these was the Environmental Defence Society's Gary Taylor:
“We need to ask why Maritime New Zealand has been so slow out of the blocks when it should have contingency plans in place that are ready to go the moment an incident occurs. No attempts have been made to contain the oil with booms, there seems to be an experiment with dispersal agents, all the equipment required is not available in New Zealand and is being brought from overseas, expertise also seems not available here and is being brought in and no containers have yet been removed. And all this with worsening weather imminent.”
Again, poor battered little NZ - what an 'annus horribilis' it has been - is on the world stage, with tourists’ eyes upon us, for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday we made three different features in the Guardian, the New York Times (twice, including an "On Our Radar" blog), Al Jazeera, the ABC in Melbourne, Swedish radio, the New Scientist, and the Rena item was second most viewed on the BBC.
The bottomless sadness of the environmental disaster is matched only by the equally farcical political response. Yesterday Phil Goff was blacksmithing down in Buller. Sunday - four days after Wednesday - saw a couple of Labour media releases, one picking up on some Green banter from two days earlier, about oil spills in the harbour vs rugby parties on the wharf.
But my favourite was this from the party’s own Jordan Carter on Twitter. 140 characters never spoke so loudly in their silence between the lines: “@GarethMP and the Greens are doing a great job keeping people up to date about #Rena. Shame #NZGovernment isn’t.”
Perhaps Rena, in the way of ill winds, brought with it a breath of fresh air: finally - finally! - some evidence of self awareness from Labour? Some consciousness that they are not the flavour of the month, and that political grandstanding on the beaches for them, just now, would backfire?
The Greens, by contrast, led by Gareth Hughes and Russel Norman, have been in Tauranga and the media all week - their Tweeting was all about flights in and out of Tauranga, turning the car around from Northland to go to Tauranga, live chat on Facebook last night from #Rena public meeting at Tauranga... but above all, daily challenging the government response or non-response.
In Labour's absence, however well judged that absence, the Greens were left looking like the opposition, and what it does to their electoral fortunes I can’t wait to watch. It brings with it lovely irony and what must be an acute dilemma for them, about salvaging political win in the face of environmental loss.
According to @JohnKeyPM’s Twitter account, "national party leader John Key" happily spent yesterday “helping hammer in the final hoardings”. Not the nails on his political coffin, then? It brought this dry quip from Keith Ng: “Whoever is running the @JohnKeyPM joke account. You have a great sense of comic timing.”
The PM, I know, is perennially relaxed, but with oil washing up on the beaches - Aucklanders’ beaches, like Waihi - I think he ought to be worried.
And worried too about the narrative of "lying". Lying is perhaps a strong word. Let’s say, challenges to the government's - and Key's own - credibility.
In my last offering from Twitter today, there was, fabulously, this. There were the #keylines, including several about Coro St: "John Key heard from somebody at MediaWorks that Coronation St will be on pay TV at 3am if Labour wins". And this, from today‘s Dom Post editorial, which uses the word "dilettante", and says: “sunny-and-confident is in danger of tipping over the edge into flip-and-glib”.
With the PM looking lightweight on heavy oil, the timing for him - in what, but for the RWC, would be an election campaign - could not be worse.
Disclosure: Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate. In her defence, she also notes that she has seen real political journalists in a proper published daily paper - or the Dom Post anyway - turn a single Tweet into a whole article, more than once.