Shooting the Pollies


Let’s face it: disasters – man-made or natural – are good news for incumbent politicians.

The photo-ops are endless: George W Bush having Thanksgiving turkey with the American troops in Iraq, or hovering in his helicopter over New Orleans (he mucked it up the first time, but no matter); John Howard in his helicopter over tsunami-ravaged Aceh (note the crash-helmet and the worried frown); John Howard on his secret mission to Baghdad, or on a visit to drought-ridden NSW (complete with Akubra hat and tweed jacket); Condoleezza Rice packing food for the victims of hurricane Katrina; Senator Robert Hill with the Australian troops in Iraq; Peter Costello with Indonesian school children in Aceh; Tony Blair’s televised speech after the London bombings; John Howard comforting the victims of the Bali bombing; the list goes on and on.

September 11 made George W Bush – he was a nobody, a tin-pot politician from Texas, before that.

The main thing when visiting a disaster area is to wear an open-necked shirt and have your sleeves rolled up. Give the impression that you mean business. If you are visiting a war zone, wear battle fatigues.

Disasters can be good for leaders of the opposition, too. They provide a welcome opportunity for them to paint themselves as good in a crisis. Think of Beazley’s ‘subhuman’ remarks after the London bombings. I, too, can be the saviour of the nation, he was saying. Vote for me – I’m tougher than John Howard. You want the terrorists eliminated? I’m your man.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

Disasters are also good for business, as long as your operations are not in the disaster area. One example, among many, is the US construction giant, Halliburton. This firm, of which US Vice-President Dick Cheney was once CEO, has just won a US$15 million contract for ‘unwatering activities’ in New Orleans. (Or to be precise, Halliburton’s directly owned subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root has.)

KBR has also been awarded a contract to repair roofs and restore power, worth US$30 million. There was no competitive bidding. Vice-President Cheney still has stock options in Halliburton worth more than US$10 million. (For a detailed account of Halliburton’s activities, click here) Although it has been involved in various scandals in Iraq and is the subject of US Senate investigations, Halliburton is seldom mentioned in the Australian media. I wonder why?

The shareholders and senior executives of Halliburton must be blessing Hurricane Katrina – as they blessed the destruction of Iraq.

In the face of adversity, human beings love to be comforted, especially by senior politicians, who can pose as the father (or mother) of the nation. On his second visit to New Orleans, Bush was photographed hugging a woman. But the comforting of disaster victims by politicians is little different from baby-kissing during the elections – or visits to old folks’ homes.

There are three kinds of disaster, all of which are grist to the politicians’ mill. The first is man-made: military operations where things do not go exactly as planned. Examples might be Vietnam, Iraq or World War I. The military disaster generally buttresses the leader’s power. The visit by the leader comforts the troops and enables him to be seen as the saviour of the country. An interesting case is Joseph Stalin. As far as I know, Stalin never visited the front; but despite early blunders, he took the credit for winning the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Right up to his death, Stalin remained immensely popular, regardless of the terror and the gulags.

The second kind of disaster is the unexpected attack. Pearl Harbor or September 11 might be examples. As we have seen, September 11 was a godsend to Bush, as were the Bali bombings to John Howard.

The third kind of disaster is the ‘Act of God’: Hurricane Katrina, or the Boxing Day tsunami. This should be the easiest to deal with for the politician. I’m sure Bush will do better next time, with coaching.

It does depend, however, on which country the disaster occurs in. Third World countries are rarely – if ever – visited by First World politicians. Residents of Rwanda, Darfur, the Congo, or Bosnia are not likely to be hugged by the President of the United States or Prime Minister of Australia. And typhoons or floods in Bangladesh or India are not worth commenting on. It seems that famines are of little interest to politicians – they generally happen in Third World countries and there are no votes in them.

There is a picture of British Prime Minister Lloyd George in France in 1916, when it was obvious that Britain and France were in a bloodbath and all was not going well. Lloyd George is seen conferring with English Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the French generals. Like Stalin, Lloyd George never visited the front, but his presence in France cheered up the British troops, and he was able to take the credit for winning the war.

Disasters are a politician’s best friend, if properly handled. And the minders will see to that.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.