Confidence has been swept away

When the Catastrophe Commission says that Prime Minister Göran Persson is “ultimately responsible” for the failures in Sweden’s response to last year’s Asian tsunami, these are not empty words. For while many people were shown to have failed, the most conspicuous failure of all was the failure of leadership at the very top.

Persson has said that he takes full responsibility for the government’s failure to react quickly to the disaster that was unfolding for thousands of Swedes in Thailand on December 26th last year.

This is a step in the right direction, but it appears clear that neither he nor any of his ministers are going to resign, despite being on the receiving end of what most commentators agree is the most damning report ever written about a sitting Swedish government.

The report shows that the government had ignored repeated calls for an organisation to be set up to deal with major disasters involving Swedes abroad. It also paints a picture of a rudderless government and civil service unable to comprehend the scale of the disaster with which they were dealing.

The government was rudderless because the two people who should have been giving it direction – Göran Persson and Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds – seemed to be more concerned that their Christmas break should carry on uninterrupted than to get back to work and show some leadership.

For all the justifiable criticism of middle-ranking civil servants, cabinet secretaries and state secretaries, what was sorely needed to get the Swedish rescue effort off the ground was a prime minister leading from the front.

At times of crisis, a leader is needed not for their expertise in disaster relief, but to bang heads together, ask questions and to give a wake up call to those who need to act. This is particularly true for Persson, whose premiership has been marked by a remarkable centralising of decision-making to his own office.

But rather than giving a wake-up call, Göran Persson and Laila Freivalds were caught sleeping. They have repeatedly said that they were not given information by their civil servants. But the first report that a tsunami had hit Thailand came from news agency TT at 5.42 am, which said that many tourists were missing in Phuket.

Given all the information publicly available about the number of flights that go to the Phuket region from Sweden, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that many Swedes could be among the missing tourists.

I remember seeing a similar report in the early morning on the BBC, and my first thought was ‘don’t a lot of Swedes go to Thailand for Christmas?’

Persson and Freivalds should have been asking themselves the same thing, quizzing their civil servants, calling ambassadors, foreign leaders, getting their aides to find information from tour operators.

Yet a full twelve hours later the government was still carrying on with Christmas holidays as usual (and Freivalds was on her way to her now notorious theatre visit), while other much less badly affected countries were sending aid to the crisis area.

There is plenty in this report to suggest that Freivalds, or even Persson, should resign. Persson’s public apology certainly seems utterly insufficient.

But the depressing truth of the matter is that neither will go unless they are pushed out kicking and screaming. The left-wing majority in parliament suggests that if the opposition brings forward a no confidence motion, it will rub salt into existing wounds, but fail to inflict any further damage on Persson.

But it is clear that this episode has deprived Sweden of reasons to have confidence in its leaders.

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