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It is de rigueur for politicians to make an appearance in every disaster zone - be it a flood, a hurricane, an earthquake, or a train wreck. On the weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was at the site of the Lac-Mégantic derailment disaster before the fire was even extinguished. So were Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official opposition.

We saw a similar and predictable scenario unfold in Calgary during the floods: The Prime Minister, Premier Alison Redford and a seemingly endless stampede of opposition leaders, ministers and backbenchers rolled into town before the flood waters even began to recede and made the obligatory, well-scripted appearance(s) before the TV cameras. (Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was a little late to Lac-Mégantic because he was still in Alberta making flood-related appearances.)

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There is no doubt what we expect of public officials in times of crisis: A stoic public presence, some re-assuring words and a lot of practical information.

During the recent disasters, that no-nonsense role was performed admirably by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi – and to a lesser extent by Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche – but, as local leaders they have direct, close and immediate supervisory and administrative responsibilities.

The real question that needs to be asked is about the role of outsiders, of the mucky-mucks who descend like guardian angels, or a plague of locusts, depending on your perspective.

In times of crisis, is the presence of politicians a help or a hindrance? Do they do anything useful, or just place cause additional grief to already overburdened local police, and get in the way of rescue and clean-up efforts?

Or does the motorcade rolling into town send a powerful message that "we care," provide a morale boost for front-line workers, and ensure that the locals not be left to fend for themselves?

Does the appearance of a prime minister or premier, however brief, help attract attention and hence much-needed donations to organizations doing real relief work on the ground, like the Canadian Red Cross Society?

These are not easy questions to answer.

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One can be cynical and conclude that politicians flock to disaster scenes because the TV cameras are there and they want to exploit the situation to score partisan points.

But it's not that simple.

How a politician responds to a disaster can make or break their career. No one wants to be seen as indifferent or uncaring. No one wants to be the elected official who stayed at the cottage while Rome (or Lac-Mégantic) burned. Paradoxically, the public also frowns upon politicians who over-politicize disasters. So it's a delicate balance.

Despite all-too-common disdain for politicians, most do care. They are in public life because they want to make a difference. The concern they express when they touch down in disaster zones is genuine.

Disasters, aside from their impact on affected individuals, can have a profound influence on public policy. One runaway train will generate more policy discussion and action on transportation and environmental policies than 100 Parliamentary debates, and a single flood will influence land-use policies more than 1,000 earnest environmental studies.

For better or worse, most of our public policy decisions are reactive, not proactive.

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So maybe it's useful for politicians to occasionally breathe in some rancid air and get their feet wet in disaster zones.

What is not useful though is for them to do so by rote. Far too many appearances that are occurring in disaster zones are simply butt-covering, checking off a perceived duty from a list.

Our leaders need to think a little harder about how to best show leadership.

Many years ago, at the height of the SARS crisis, then Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement attended a Blue Jays baseball game: It was a bold political move, a way of saying life should go on during the disease outbreak; it was also much more useful and impactful than the minister getting in the way in a hospital, on the front lines.

In short, there is more than one way to show you care, more than one way to influence public policy.

It takes a lot more effort and political courage to offer up policies on averting disasters than it does to promise disaster relief. And there is no guarantee the cameras will be there if you dare look forward and not back.

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