Disaster politics: Gallant walks 'fine line' with flood-related social media posts
Is it a photo op or a genuine effort to help citizens? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference
Politicians can't control Mother Nature, but they can unleash a flood of self-promotion.
Liberal politicians, including Premier Brian Gallant, have been using social media to give New Brunswickers practical flood-response information — while mixing those posts with plenty of photos of Gallant in action, filling sandbags and helping evacuate homes.
"Very proud to be part of a team led by @BrianGallantNB who is very hands on and showing tremendous leadership during #NBFlood2018," Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Bill Fraser tweeted on Saturday from Quispamsis.
Flood prevention efforts are continuing throughout the Saint John region. Thank you again to all those lending a hand to friends and neighbours in any way they can. <a href="https://t.co/iInjws7t3a">pic.twitter.com/iInjws7t3a</a>—@BrianGallantNB
Fraser posted photos of himself and Gallant helping fill sandbags. Gallant's Facebook and Twitter feeds showed him meeting with local mayors, surveying flood damage and helping people move furniture out of flood-threatened homes.
But the premier wasn't the only one with political opportunities, intentional or otherwise, in the response to the flood.
Over the same weekend, two Progressive Conservative MLAs took to Twitter to attack Gallant for not asking the Canadian Forces to help with flood relief.
Largest military base in the Commonwealth sitting on the edge of the Flood - and nobody thought to call them days ago to help sand bag. TH—@TrevorHolderNB
"The military should have been called three days ago to help us sand bag," said Portland-Simonds MLA Trevor Holder.
Fredericton West-Hanwell MLA Brian Macdonald went further, declaring that Emergency Measures Organization officials were wrong when they advised Gallant the military wasn't needed. The premier should not have heeded their input, he said.
"Just following advice isn't leadership. We may never know what could have been prevented by engaging the Army early," Macdonald said.
With sand bags, it's important to get them in place BEFORE the water comes.<br><br>Premier Gallant: call in the Army now!<br><br>Should have done it last week.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBFlood?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBFlood</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBFlood2018?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBFlood2018</a> <a href="https://t.co/swleNdbbGb">https://t.co/swleNdbbGb</a>—@BrianTMacdonald
Higgs distances himself
PC leader Blaine Higgs distanced himself from those comments Monday. Higgs said he spoke with EMO officials and has "a level of comfort" they have the resources they need.
"I think we have to rely on their judgment, and I don't criticize the premier in that regard for listening to them as well," he said. "That's why they're there."
He praised what he called the "amazing" response by officials and volunteers, but he said it remains to be seen whether Gallant's visits to flood-affected areas, publicized on social media, were helping.
"If you're out there meeting with mayors and getting direct information from the ground, which I think is a requirement for the premier, that's great," he said. "If you show up and pretend you're doing something and take a photo with an entourage and then leave, what is that?"
Gallant's office supplied a run-down of the time he spent helping flood efforts: 45 minutes in Grand Bay-Westfield last Wednesday, two hours in Saint John last Thursday, two and a half hours in three Saint John-area communities Friday and two and a half hours in Quispamsis and Chipman on Saturday.
That doesn't include time he spent assessing flood areas, his spokesperson said.
Another full day of flood preparation began today in a basement just outside Saint John. Later today we’ll be filling and delivering sand bags throughout the greater Saint John region. <a href="https://t.co/dpm2Uznom6">pic.twitter.com/dpm2Uznom6</a>—@BrianGallantNB
Higgs, who said he's been under the weather in the last week, also questioned federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc's arrival at one flood zone in a Coast Guard helicopter.
"That takes away from the seriousness of it," he said.
A politician walks a fine line during a natural disaster, when emotions run high as their constituents suffer stressful losses.
An elected leader's high profile helps when vital safety information is communicated to the public. But the leader also risks being seen as capitalizing on the disaster — especially with an election looming. New Brunswickers go to the polls Sept. 24.
"I couldn't say what the perfect response is, but we do know politicians are evaluated on it," said University of New Brunswick Saint John political scientist J.P. Lewis.
We just assessed the flooding in Chipman with Mayor Atkinson. Residents should note that Route 10 west of the bridge in Chipman has been closed to all traffic. Officials are working on an alternate route for trucks and emergency vehicles. <a href="https://t.co/OjNJjLWT2z">pic.twitter.com/OjNJjLWT2z</a>—@BrianGallantNB
He said Gallant's staff would see political opportunity in images of the 36-year-old premier filling sandbags or lifting sofas. His main election opponent will be Higgs, 64 years old, a grandfather and retired from a business career.
If the premier were really helping, "that's great," Lewis said, but "that's how fine the line is, that we can be easily skeptical of these images coming out."
Gallant's ice storm role criticized
Gallant's presence can also be a distraction, as it was in last year's ice storm.
A report on the province's response to the storm in northeast New Brunswick concluded Gallant was "very effective" at communicating safety advice to residents, but his front-and-centre role consumed extra EMO resources.
"At least three members of the Premier's team were asking the same questions of different people," the report said. "This diverted emergency managers from their primary tasks."
EMO's communications director was assigned to help with Gallant's news conferences, taking away time the director needed to produce "emergency public information," the report said. That forced other staff to pick up the slack, diverting them from their duties.
Gallant's spokesperson Tina Robichaud said Monday his office was using its own staff to plan his activities this time, and his presence at two media briefings last week did not need any EMO resources.
Military decision complex
Calling in the army would appear to be a simpler matter, at least according to the two PC MLAs.
"Largest military base in the Commonwealth sitting on the edge of the Flood," Holder tweeted, referring to Base Gagetown, "and nobody thought to call them days ago to help sandbag."
But a Saint John-based security expert said it's more complicated than that.
Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and everyone's entitled at times to be incorrect.- Greg MacCallum , N.B. EMO director
Geoffrey Hamilton, a former naval officer who is now CEO of an overseas security firm, said if the Canadian Forces felt New Brunswick was constantly depending on them as "first-line responders," they might insist on recouping the cost.
"You'd find the military a very expensive way to fill sandbags when there are volunteers available and no immediate risk to life," he said.
Report said military wasn't needed
The 2017 ice-storm report said EMO had the resources they needed and were "reluctant" to call in the military, but politicians overruled them because they were feeling "pressure to take action" from anxious citizens.
While the military presence reassured people, EMO still believed it should be reserved for "the direst of circumstances," the report said. Otherwise, New Brunswick could get a "boy-who-cried-wolf" reputation.
Gallant cited the report when asked about the PC criticism on the weekend. He said he stood by the ice storm decision, "but at the same time we recognize we have to have the right balance."
He said calling in the Canadian Coast Guard for flood help, which the province did last week, was "the equivalent of calling in the navy."
EMO director bristles
EMO director Greg MacCallum bristled on the weekend when asked about the criticism from Macdonald and Holder.
"Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and everyone's entitled at times to be incorrect," he said, adding he was speaking to military officials every day about whether they were needed.
"People often want to speculate on what people could do, or should do, or should have done. I am not in the business of being terribly concerned with opinions. I'm concerned with facts. I'm concerned with addressing the requirements, and I can assure the public that the requirements are being met."
Higgs defends MLA comments
While Higgs disagreed with his two fellow PC MLAs about the need to call the army, he defended their comments.
"MLAs represent their ridings and the views they're hearing from people," he said. "I don't criticize that. ...But I've conveyed to you the official position of the party."
And he said if Gallant isn't deliberately capitalizing on the flood for political gain, "I do think it's important for him to be around," he said.
"I do think he needs to listen to EMO, he needs to get the voice of municipal leaders, and talk to citizens on the way too, to get their opinions on what more can be done. Everybody always thinks there's more that can be done. In some cases that's true."