When asked what is most likely to blow governments off course, Harold Macmillan famously replied “Events, dear boy, events!” Unforeseen tragedies can have a dramatic effect on a leader’s popularity. One only has to look at the rise in approval for George W Bush after September 11, followed by a drop off after Hurricane Katrina.
The same can be seen in more recent events. The immense popularity of Prime Minister John Key could have been severely dented after the double blow in the South Island towards the end of 2010. Key’s speech after the deaths of the 29 Pike River miners were confirmed is fairly remarkable, and perhaps a pivotal moment in his Premiership. Times like these put politics into perspective, and Key performed admirably. The pain of the victims families was visibly shared by Key. Key rose above party politics at this point. Without being too mawkish, he was no longer the National Prime Minister, he was our Prime Minister.
A similar incident has occurred in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting incident. A tragedy such as this should not be about left and right, or red and blue. There is a time and place for a full discourse on why it happened, but now is not it. Bickering from both sides of the political spectrum has allowed President Obama to come in and rise above this. I may disagree with him on many points, but you can’t deny his oratory skills. His speech on the tragedy has been received warmly by many, even being praised by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. It could also serve to boost his flagging Presidency.
As Obama would well know. As crass as it is, tragedies can be used to improve one’s standing in the polls. However there is a crucial difference between using a tragedy for your own ends and being seen to be using a tragedy for your own ends. It is all a matter of public perception. It’s why when John Key toured the damage after the Christchurch earthquake he was seen as a man of the people; but when the diminished Phil Goff does it, he is trying to capitalise.
I believe Queensland Premier Anna Bligh can expect a boost in her ratings in the next poll. The latest Newspoll has her disapproval rating at 67 percent, but she has performed with sincerity and grace in the face of the devastating Queensland floods. Not everyone can benefit from such situations of course. Julia Gillard seems to have a face and voice that is incapable of expressing simple human emotions, which isn’t a plus in events like these. Kevin Rudd had his faults as a Prime Minister, but I’m sure Gillard would kill for his common touch right now.