The real lesson from Japan? Julia Gillard is awesome

I found Simon Banks’ Drum article about political leadership in the aftermath of Japan so thoroughly inappropriate that I couldn’t resist bashing out a quick response. His thesis is that recent crises should make us grateful for the outstanding response of Australian leaders.

Before I get into the substance of the article, it’s worth pointing out the crucial piece of information contained in the byline – Banks is the director of Hawker Britton. Those sane people without much interest in Australian elections may not realise that this is a firm with extremely close links to the ALP, and therefore Banks has a professional interest in portraying Julia Gillard and Anna Bligh as strong leaders. This is surely the kind of information that should be disclosed before one begins reading an article, not afterwards.

Firstly, he claims that “in the aftermath of the Queensland floods, Premier Anna Bligh exemplified how it should be done.” I’m not going to argue with this. Although I missed much of the coverage because I was overseas, Bligh’s performance was widely praised and her improvement in the polls in Queensland demonstrates how appreciative Queensland voters have been. It’s a perfectly reasonable point.

But his argument becomes problematic when he begins contrasting the Japanese Government unfavourably with Bligh, and Julia Gillard:

In recent days, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also provided clear and concise information to Australians about what is happening in Japan, based on the best available information and expert opinion. But events in Japan also show just how badly things can go wrong.

He says that the courage shown by the Fukushima workers ” has not been matched by clear and concise information about what is really taking place”. Really? Do you have any clear and concise information of your own that proves such a damning assessment, Mr Banks? No – you merely have a conclusion:

The consequence is that both in Japan and around the world people are losing confidence in the capacity of the Japanese authorities to act.

Or so he says – again, no examples of this alleged lack of faith has been provided.

The Japanese Government is certainly not above criticism, but there is no doubt that they have made an enormous effort to provide regular updates on the situation. Prime Minister Naoko Kan has appeared on television with great regularity. An English-language Twitter feed from his office was even set up so, and simply scrolling through it illustrates just how often he has been updating the world on the crisis.

Of course, Kan had more important priorities than spending the entire day on television, like visiting the affected areas and finding a solution to an extremely complicated crisis. The order to pump seawater into the reactor, for instance, was his. Which is why many of the updates were provided by Yukio Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary, who has been such a frequent presence on the world’s television screens that he now appears to have reached exhaustion.

There have certainly been lapses in Japan’s response to the emergency, and some have criticised Kan’s leadership. In particular the delay in overriding TEPCO’s management of the Fukushima plants, which was initially driven by a desire to preserve its assets, was tardy.

But Banks isn’t interested in exploring this kind of detail, or offering even these extremely brief explanations of where the Japanese Government might have fallen short. Nor is he interested in engaging with the enormous complexity of trying to solve three simultaneous disasters – the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the biggest tsunami in living memory and the worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

In fact, Banks’ interest here isn’t in Japan at all, despite the lip service he pays to the extent of the disaster. His task, as usual, is to lionise the ALP. But honestly – of course Julia Gillard could provide “clear and concise information to Australians” – she wasn’t on the ground, trying to actually solve the crisis. Relaying information as it came to hand was literally the least she could do.

Furthermore, the person in the government who was actually doing most of the updating was Kevin Rudd. But since the ALP has rejected him, praising his leadership abilities no longer fits within Banks’ narrative, although he does graciously take a moment to defend him from Andrew Bolt’s charge of showboating.

What Banks is doing is itself showboating. The very idea of contrasting Julia Gillard’s response to an overseas crisis to that of a government almost overwhelmed by an unprecedented catastrophe situation is absurd and insensitive. Sure, thousands may have lost their lives, with thousands more missing – but gosh, what a fantastic showcase for Julia Gillard’s leadership! Every cloud, huh?

Banks then has the gall to criticise the Australian Greens for making assertions about the safety of nuclear power, when his entire thesis has been based on no observations whatsoever about how Japan responded to the crisis – nor how Julia Gillard did, for that matter.

But do not presume that Banks does not believe in providing facts to the public merely because he has declined to do so in this article. As he concludes, he says:

In the [nuclear] debate that will inevitably follow, Australians need more facts, not less.

Yes, they do. And so do his readers, who need some facts in support of Banks’ claim that “a minor incident at Fukushima has turned into a manageable problem and now into a potential crisis”. He might care to explain exactly how a massive tsunami constituted a “minor incident”, and the subsequent radiation leakage from multiple reactors which stumped experts for days and has still not been adequately repaired was a “manageable problem” would be an excellent start. Perhaps Banks might deign to go over there and drain the radioactive cooling ponds himself, if it’s all so terribly “manageable”?

Perhaps the conclusion Banks would like us to draw from all this is that the Japanese Government should immediately retain the advice of the expert spin-doctors from Hawker Britton. Clearly, what Prime Minister Kan needs is not a way to stop reactors overheating, but a pompous Australian to lecture him about the value of communication.

My conclusion, by contrast, would be that Banks has proven himself poorly qualified to offer advice on striking an appropriate tone in the aftermath of disasters.

And while we’re speaking about disasters, surely the director of a company that helped to mastermind Labor’s 2010 election campaign should hesitate to offer advice to any political leader.

3 Responses to The real lesson from Japan? Julia Gillard is awesome

  1. Simon Ansell 21 March 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    Much to say about this, but in the interest of brevity I will sum it up: I concur.

  2. Lindy Twycross 21 March 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    I too concur, but the same applies to every op-ed, opinion piece. The media is littered with it .. newspapers, TV, radio. Opinion couched as facts. Bias and vested interest given what is really just free advertising to fillup space or air, with scant regard for facts. So while I agree, can’t for the life of me see why you have picked on this particlular piece.

  3. Calligula 23 April 2011 at 12:04 am #

    You’d have to accept that the Japanese would be adept at cleaning up nuclear fallout by now.
    Advice from Gillard?
    Why not.
    She’s bloody hopeless at running a country – so, indeed, why not.

    Reflect for a moment – she’s not much use here – the Japanese have performed badly with their natural disaster.
    The Japanese intend to leave heaps of their people in the lurch after their disaster.
    Why can’t we leave Gillard in Japan, then?
    Leave her where national attitudes and codes of practice match her’s and her intent.

    Stap me! Abbott might go to rescue her.
    That’d be one for the books.
    Kill two birds with one stone, what!
    All we need now is an excessively radioactive rock to shove between those two sweethearts.
    Might leave Doug out in the cold; but too bad.

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