Thursday, May 05, 2016

While my guitar gently weeps (Musings on the political fallout of the Fort Mac fires)

Updated: 6 May 2016
This Thursday, on his regular spot on CBC's Edmonton AM, Paul McLoughlin, publisher of Alberta Scan, brought up the politics of the catastrophic Fort McMurray wildfires. I'm glad he did because it's been on my mind ever since the widespread devastation of the wildfires became clear.

Until now, I've been afraid to write anything because of potential twitter bullying. As someone with atypical ideas on sensitive subjects, I fear that tweeps with tens of 1000s of followers may casually and wittily trash ideas that clash with their world view. Then their followers retweet it and some may even jump in to dump all over me for having a different opinion. Been there, done that. Such is today's Twittersphere. But so far I've never suffered the unforgivable abuse some celeb female tweeps have. Fingers crossed I never will.

This blog is not about the suffering of those affected by the devastation or about their strong spirit and 
resilience or about how Albertans and Canadians have rushed to their aid. Others have written and will write on these important features as the weeks and months of the disaster's recovery and relief progress.

Instead the blog offers a few musings on 
  • What comes next, after the Fort Mac wildfire is controlled and we're into the recovery phase and 
  • How informed citizens should monitor the behaviours of politicians and their operatives. 
The blog's title is from a 1968 Beatles ditty by George Harrison,While my guitar gently weeps.

Of course, it's an unwritten rule - and common human decency - that politics should never be mentioned early in the game when the lives of many people are so profoundly affected, in this case suddenly and rapidly. During the crisis, the important things are for all concerned to concentrate on saving lives and key infrastructure, and getting the disaster under control.

But 'natural disasters', regardless of their multiple contributing factors, often portend political disasters too. Think Hurricane Katrina and the undoing of George Bush.


What can go wrong with disaster recovery?
Well, the possibilities are endless and include:

1.When a disaster has widespread and long term negative consequences to people's lives, opportunities for screw-ups abound. It's worse if the disaster has never happened before or if it's the biggest of its kind, because few or no templates for what to do exist, except in general terms. But the devil is always in the details.

2. Fort Mac's disaster has not occurred in a vacuum, which also complicates what can go wrong. Alberta already suffers from over-reliance on oil revenues, thanks to 44 years of PCAA governments. Rachel Notley's NDP government has opted to run deficits rather than cut back on education, healthcare, infrastructure, and more. Those on the right of the political spectrum already judge maintaining social programs at the expense of a deficit to be a huge blunder and show the NDP's incompetence.

The bill for Fort Mac's disaster recovery is likely to run into the $billions. The funds will come from the Alberta and Canadian governments and insurance companies. Already large government deficits will grow. How many Fort Mac citizens had adequate insurance on their properties and possessions is another matter.

3. Invariably, governments cannot respond to the needs of thousands of devastated citizens soon enough. The needs are too many and life doesn't stop because of the disaster. Many competing priorities exist and government must deal with them. Other emergencies may arise.

4. That's when those affected by the big disaster start screaming about how the government is doing nothing. We've all seen it on the news and it's heartbreaking for the folks involved. But it doesn't mean governments have failed. Only so much can be done and, in the view of those suffering, seldom will it be timely enough and sufficient.

5. Also, all media delightfully supply a megaphone for the victims. Especially Postmedia, which consistently runs anti-NDP propaganda. They'll have a field day once the b*tching starts and make sure every Canadian knows about what an awful job Alberta's NDP (and Canada's Liberals) are doing on the Fort Mac file.

What can go right with disaster recovery?
Well, the government and its civil servants, who carry much of the load of disaster response and recovery, can do their best, do most things right, and get some credit from citizens. 

It helps if local media are fair and balanced and some are. Unfortunately, many good folks have lost their jobs due to cutbacks, but some remain, including the Edmonton Journal's 
However, Postmedia's near monopoly has an effect. One or two voices of reason tend to be drowned by multiple big-name columnists writing for the National Post, promoting Postmedia's party line/orthodoxy, and carried in local newspapers that are part of its chain.

Let's return to the unwritten rule not to take political advantage from a tragic disaster like Fort Mac's wildfires. So far Alberta's opposition parties have not overtly stooped to benefit from the tragedy.

WRP's Brian Jean, a resident of Fort Mac, is a naturally sympathetic figure as he personally lost much due to the wildfires.

More interesting is this tweet from WRP political operative, Vitor Marciano. Even if a genuine Jean moment, it's self-serving. Most folks who do truly selfless things don't take pictures and have operatives distribute them to the masses.

So I suggest citizens interested in politics monitor the Twitter accounts of politicians on the right and their surrogates, including those in the media. Will they bond together and fully support the Alberta and Canadian governments in their Fort McMurray recovery efforts over the difficult challenges on the long road ahead? Or as soon as folks complain, will they use it for political advantage?

My guess is that sooner, not later, politicos and their operatives will start to dump on Notley's government (Trudeau's too) over the handling of the Fort Mac tragedy. Bet on it. They'll distort events and spin anything for political advantage. And the Fort Mac wildfires give them an opportunity like no other.

At first it'll be subtle, because they're not stupid. The foundations have been laid already with Marciano's self-serving tweet portraying WRP Jean as hero-personified. Of course, I could be wrong  - and hope so - but time will tell. 

As noted, this blog focuses on political aspects of natural disasters and their aftermath. The scale of the Fort Mac tragedy presents enormous challenges to all levels of government and the private sector too. As such, it will serve as a valuable case study in not only disaster relief and recovery but also in the politics of disasters. For the latter, it's useful to monitor a government's political opponents to document how they attempt to gain political advantage.

In the meantime, please support the 
Your donation will be matched by both the Alberta and Canadian governments.

What to do when you see the future and can do nothing about it? Write a blog, of course. 
Some lyrics unused in the final version caught my fancy:
I look at the trouble and see that it's raging,
While my guitar gently weeps.
As I'm sitting here, doing nothing but ageing,
Still, my guitar gently weeps.

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