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Westman awash in politicians

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BRANDON -- It is one of the great truths of politics -- if there is a crisis, there will be a line of politicians trying to exploit it to their advantage. This summer's flooding of the Assiniboine and Souris rivers is no exception.

As the first crest of the Assiniboine rushed toward Brandon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Greg Selinger and a number of other elected officials posed for a scheduled photo op and then went on a 20-minute helicopter ride over the flood zone.

Local reaction was sharply divided between those who appreciated that Harper and Selinger had taken the time to come to the region, and those who regarded it as a costly public relations stunt that did nothing to advance the flood fight.

Three days later, federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair sought a photo op of his own with Canadian Forces personnel who were helping with the flood fight, but the plan was spiked by Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who banned tours while the Assiniboine's crest was approaching.

If Mulcair had come to Brandon, he could have driven or walked within a few feet of the river. Instead, he went before the cameras in Winnipeg and grumbled about "partisan politics."

Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell has been active on his Twitter account throughout the ordeal. One of his tweets had a photo of heavy equipment moving dirt and read "Dike raising continues on 18th Street, building on 2013 construction. $27 million more committed. #bdnmb #mbpoli #PST."

Another had a photo of a flooded Brandon park and read "Flooding Queen Elizabeth Park. Dikes constructed in 2011 and 2013 saving #bdnmb right now. More to do ... #PST #mbpoli."

The truth is often the first casualty in a crisis, and that is the case here. The $27 million in flood-protection funding Caldwell alluded to has nothing to do with the recent PST increase. The provincial share is only $12.25 million, and that is money that was left over after the Winnipeg Floodway expansion came in under budget.

The dike work done in 2011 and 2013 was also not financed by the PST hike, which was only enacted into law in December of last year.

Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst has received province-wide media attention during the flood fight. Hours after the Assiniboine had crested in Brandon, she used two of her Facebook accounts to advertise she would be attending a concert at a city park and "I'll have a bag of Team Shari pins with me, if you want to be part of the Team."

Former Brandon mayor, MP and MLA Rick Borotsik blasted Decter Hirst's campaigning during a state of emergency. "People are fighting for their lives, for heaven's sakes," he said. "Now is not the time to be looking for votes."

RM of Cornwallis Reeve Reg Atkinson, also a former Brandon mayor, echoed Borotsik's comments, saying Decter Hirst's electioneering was "in poor taste" and "a negative that will hurt her."

Those are just a few examples of the many politicians who have sought to improve their political fortunes during the flooding. Some will be successful, but many will not.

That is because crises such as floods and other natural disasters are political minefields, in which the likelihood of scoring dividends is far smaller than incurring the disdain of tired, frustrated people who feel they are being manipulated by politicians more intent on posing than problem-solving.

The risk could be avoided if politicians followed a few simple rules in those situations.

First, they must remember it's not about them, but rather the people impacted by the crisis. If the politician can help, then help. If he or she can't, get out of the way.

Second, they should be generous with concern for those who need it, and praise for those who have earned it. Be genuine. Show compassion.

Finally, they should never broadcast their good deeds to the public. If they are making a meaningful contribution, the word will get out through third parties, including the media, and it will have greater impact.

These rules are neither complicated nor controversial. They rest on a foundation of common sense and decency. Then again, that may explain why they are so often ignored.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2014 A11

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