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In the aftermath of disasters, politicians need to watch their words

In the three days after a runaway train filled with oil devastated a small Quebec community, before an investigation had even properly begun, theories abounded about the lessons to be drawn.

To critics of Stephen Harper's government, it was evidence of the costs of deregulation; to pipeline advocates, proof that we should be moving oil underground rather than by rail; to some environmentalists, yet another sign that we need to slow down resource development until we better know how to manage it.

Throw in the politics of Quebec, where an Alberta-based Prime Minister and staunch promoter of the oil industry tends to be viewed with suspicion, and there is enough here to keep Ottawa chattering for years.

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For the most part, the people running the country and those who aspire to do so are making a visible effort to hold off on such conversations while Lac-Mégantic copes with its losses. But restraint will become more difficult with each passing day, because of both the nature of the tragedy and the culture of the nation's capital.

More so than when previous such tragedies occurred, our political classes trade heavily in rapid response. Every relatively marginal controversy that feeds the 24-hour news cycle is spun on Twitter and television panels and through sympathetic media outlets within hours, if not minutes. And to most of the country, it's largely white noise.

Any response to what happened this past weekend will be more than that to Canadians, and political veterans clearly know it. When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair veered into finger-pointing on Saturday, linking "a magnificent little village being burned to the ground" to the Conservative government "cutting transport safety," former Liberal leader Bob Rae was among those who lined up to castigate him. When Mr. Mulcair toured Lac-Mégantic on Sunday, he was more circumspect.

There on Monday, Justin Trudeau avoided the trouble Mr. Mulcair got himself into, pronouncing it "not the time" to criticize the government. As for Mr. Harper, he said during his weekend visit that he would leave it to investigations to determine "who is guilty, who is responsible."

Those investigations, though, are likely to take months, if not years, to offer anything conclusive. And politicians are not known for their patience.

As it happens, Lac-Mégantic is in one of the few Quebec ridings represented by a Conservative MP, Industry Minister Christian Paradis. Mr. Harper and Mr. Paradis will both feel under considerable pressure to ensure that blame is apportioned to others before it falls to them, which might explain why the Prime Minister struck a somewhat sterner tone in French on the weekend than he did in English. The executives at the U.S.-based Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway have looked bad enough in responding thus far that they may prove too inviting as targets to pass up.

As Mr. Harper continues trying to sell the Keystone Pipeline to Washington or the Northern Gateway Pipeline to British Columbia, it may also be all but impossible for him to resist the case against rail transportation that others are already making for him (even if this train happened to be carrying crude oil from North Dakota, not Alberta).

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Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, are currently in a dogfight to demonstrate which of them is better at opposing Mr. Harper, and gearing up to battle over a good number of Quebec seats. Already, some Liberals are chafing at what they complain are jabs by New Democrats about Mr. Trudeau taking longer to pay his visit to Lac-Mégantic. It's a fair bet that when Parliament returns in the fall if not sooner, at least one of the opposition leaders will try to directly link Conservative policies to the tragedy; if so, the other will be under pressure to follow suit.

In other words, it may not be long before attacks start to be shouted through the echo chambers, and become exercises in confirmation bias.

There will be important discussions to be had here – about the state of our infrastructure, federal regulation and corporate responsibility. But for once, out of respect for the victims and national interests and perhaps even each other, our leaders and their supporters would do well to leave the rapid responses to others.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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