Oil slick ruffles our leader's silky-smooth feathers

Ship ahoy! Welcome to the deregulated island paradise of New Zealand. There are few hidden reefs of regulation here. Want to open a cheap coal mine, construct a leaky building, start a finance company, navigate an oil-fuelled, toxic- chemical-containing ship through dangerous waters? Fill your boots! Forget militant unions or bothersome European-style environmental regulations. It's just like doing business in China or Indonesia, but with majestic mountains and pristine beaches . . . well, majestic mountains.

As the good ship Rena started to break up and liberate its oil and containers of toxic waste into the ocean, New Zealanders madly googled the listing ship's listed home of Monrovia.

Monrovia is the capital of the African republic of Liberia, and the sort of free-market paradise that libertarians love. Like Panama, Monrovia is where you go to get a flag of convenience. If you own a large ship, you register it in Liberia to avoid pesky first- world naval regulations you might have in your home country, such as "pay your crew a decent wage", and "when approaching Tauranga, do not drive your ship straight on to Astrolabe Reef".

So who is responsible for the Rena disaster? "Not I," cried John Key from Spillage Central four days after it happened, even though his Government has frozen its funding of Marine NZ. It seems that more money for the bureaucrats who administer coastline safety would be, in the words of Bill English, a "nice to have". Be sure to tell that to the oil-saturated penguins who wash up on Papamoa Beach before they die.

"Not I," said Phil Goff, spade in hand, whose Labour government, while increasing funding for Maritime NZ, did little to change the massive deregulation of coastal shipping that National introduced in the 1990s. "Not I," said the maritime unions, who constantly warned of the dangers we faced by relying on badly paid, third-world crews manning our deregulated coastal ships. lt's a pity that the petty behaviour of the same unions in the 1970s ("we won't sail till someone makes our bed") mean that few Kiwis listen to them any more.

The prime minister's slow public response was in stark contrast to his compassionate, quick-smart response to the Christchurch earthquake.

The badly timed oil slick has obviously ruffled our lubricious leader's silky-smooth feathers. With George Bush-like smugness (Rena rhymes with cyclone Katrina), Mr Key told us everything was under control and there was no need to panic.

But I suspect our presidential boss misunderestimated, as Dubya would say, the public mood. Had the oil hit a remote part of, say, Southland, the concern may have been more muted.

But we're talking Mount Maunganui, for goodness sake! That's where Rachel Hunter's Glenfield whanau spent every Christmas in the caravan. Who hasn't vomited at the Mount on New Year's Eve at some time in their life? It's the cradle of middle New Zealand civilisation - a Kiwi Machu Picchu.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce appeared to be almost as uncomfortable as his beached boss when questioned on the Government's response to Rena.

Thank goodness Nick Smith knew his onions sufficiently to respond sensibly and coherently. It can be quite helpful having a guy with a science PhD in Cabinet - and thankfully Dr Smith didn't get his doctorate from a cornflakes packet in Monrovia.

So what happens now?

Hopefully there will be a Rena transplant and the oil on board will be removed.

Come election day, a thin green film of electoral support may appear on the normally blue Bay of Plenty coastline. Maritime NZ will be forced to raise its oil pollution levy which will eventually result in higher costs for ordinary Kiwis, who will probably have to foot most of the bill for the clean-up. How do we fund all this in a recession?

Anyone for deep-sea oil exploration off the pristine East Coast? Gerry? Hekia? Or perhaps we could deregulate the country's flag and make New Zealand the Monrovia of the South Pacific. Very convenient.