Friday 4 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Getting Through

Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat: Winston Churchill's words to the people of Britain during its "finest hour" in 1940 were so magnificently inspiring precisely because they were so utterly uncompromising. The political force-field created by the Christchurch earthquake can be harnessed by our politicians, but only if they display the unflinching honesty and unshakeable resolve of Britain's wartime leader.

THE CHRISTCHURCH TRAGEDY has generated its own political force-field. Events of such gravity always do. When something as big and brutal as Christchurch’s devastating earthquake shatters the ordered symmetry of our daily lives, we expect our political leaders to respond with measures of equal force.

These measures don’t always have to be practical – although it’s on the ground that the authorities’ performance will always, ultimately, be judged. Often, in moments of crisis, the words of our leaders can be just as important as their deeds.

Recall Winston Churchill’s words, upon assuming the mantle of wartime leadership in 1940. "I have nothing to offer", he told a hushed House of Commons, "but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

That steely realism: so bereft of sentiment; so empty of comfort; stiffened the sinews of the British people. At such critical moments, citizens aren’t looking for soft words of pity and consolation. What they want is speech of unflinching honesty and unshakeable resolve.

"You ask, what is our aim?", Churchill went on. "I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, no matter how long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."

New Zealand is about to be tested in ways only marginally less gruelling than the ultimate audit of war. We are faced with the abrupt cessation of more than a tenth of our national economy – for how long we cannot tell. If the rebuilding of the earthquake-devastated Japanese city of Kobe is any guide, Christchurch may require as much as a decade to fully recover.

The leader who successfully harnesses the political force-field of the Christchurch earthquake will be the leader who tells New Zealanders clearly and without prevarication exactly what he or she expects of them. Because any politician who suggests that Christchurch can be rebuilt or that the New Zealand economy can successfully weather this crisis without a supreme and united national effort, is insulting the intelligence of the electorate.

Not only that, they are insulting the thousands of ordinary Kiwis: farmers, workers, businessmen, students, beneficiaries and retirees; who have added their skills and energy to the unstinting efforts of tens-of-thousands of dedicated public servants.

The men and women who have rushed to bring practical assistance to their fellow New Zealanders are showing the way forward to any political leader with the wit to see it. We are not going to get Cantabrians through this crisis except by means of a co-ordinated and collective effort. And New Zealand will only find the money to rebuild and restore Christchurch if every New Zealander pays their fair share of the cost.

That means the top ten-percent of income earners will have to give up the generous tax windfalls of last year’s Budget – as well as pay a special levy on incomes in excess of $100,000 p.a. It will require the rest of us to pay higher EQC levies. And all of us will have to invest in Earthquake Recovery Bonds with the same sort of patriotic enthusiasm that our parents and grandparents once invested in War Bonds.

Getting through will also require New Zealanders to dispense with many of the economic articles-of-faith that have been drummed into them this past quarter-century. The notion that "Government isn’t the solution to the problem. Government is the problem" (to quote Ronald Reagan’s infamous formulation) must go.

The other lesson which the heroic altruism of ordinary Cantabrians should be teaching our political class is that New Zealanders feel much more like themselves when they’re helping – not hurting – their neighbours. Any political party that believes a national reconstruction effort can be successfully undertaken while unemployed Kiwis and solo mums are being stigmatised, or while the sick and disabled are being harassed and harried into non-existent jobs, is criminally deluded.

Rebuilding Christchurch, and its crucial contribution to New Zealand’s national life, requires, above all else, the same unity of purpose that allowed the Allies to overcome fascism in World War II.

The earthquake’s political force-field will simply annihilate any politician or party which, by unfairly distributing the burdens of recovery, sets New Zealander against New Zealander – in mutual ruin.

To paraphrase Churchill: At this time we are entitled to claim the aid of all, and say: "Come then, let us go forward together."

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 March 2011.


XChequer said...

Great writing, Chris

XChequer said...

P.S any more stories like this, quoting Churchill this much, is bound to bring Winston to the blogs - perish the thought!

Anonymous said...

Key has seamlessly changed the rhetoric, and moved from blaming the public sector for being bloated, to acknowledging that Civil Defence etc is a vital governemnt function. Harder to believe that the beneficiary bashing will stop, though a new form of neglect will ensue.

Very hard to believe that National will think that a collective effort requires the rich to be taxed; they should also be proposing a capital gains tax. Trying to issue special government bonds will be expensive in the first instance, in terms of design and advertising. Treasury and the DMO are very good at borrowing in the markets, and the difference in interest cost may not be great. Historically, apart from during war, the public don't subscribe as much as institutional investors will.

My central point again is that in times of war governments have to print money,and directly control certain prices, and until this is recognised it is not actually a national emergency. With John Key's background, printing money or ensuring interest rates are lowered, are the very last things he would willingly do.

Unknown said...

There is a joke In the computer industry that goes something like this, regardless of what the question is, the answer is always the same - more CPU power.

It seems that on the left, regardless of what the question may be, the answer is always the same - increase taxes on the rich. Except for the left, this is not a joke, they are serious.

No more half measures. As well as increasing their taxes, let's introduce public flogging for those who earn over $100K. That should tell them how we feel. And, if they push off to Australia who cares?

We are better off without them.

Anonymous said...

That means the top ten-percent of income earners will have to give up the generous tax windfalls of last year’s Budget

The top ten percent of taxpayers bear a disproportionate 76% of the tax burden. We're overtaxed a whopping 66% of our "fair share" yet Chris has the gall to propose taxing us even further in the same breath that he advocates a co-ordinated and collective effort.

"Take from the overburdened in order to give to the undeserving" is still the mantra of the Labour Party apparatchiks it seems.

Chris refrains from mentioning the other side of the equation - the absence of contribution from the 350,000 working-age welfare-guzzling parasites who for too long have expected the rest of us to finance their lifestyle choices.

Here's an alternative solution for Christchurch: dismantle the Welfare State in it's entirety and set up labour camps in Canterbury. Introduce those 350,000 beneficiaries to the concepts of working for a living and of contributing to society.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... sounds like a bit of wish fulfilment to me.

We don't have that kind of politics any more and we definitely don't have that sort of politician. Nor is that sort of political will available any more.

The politicians we now have happen to be for the most part visionless and shallow careerists, because that is what people vote for. The victory of the right in narrowing the scope of political awareness to the sphere of the individual and his or her personal wants has been for all intents and purposes complete. Suggestions requiring a wider view of things are now the object of bemusement or mild contempt.

People are all for grand plans until they learn that they will be subject to them and/or they have to make a real sacrifice for them.

Just watch. I predict that Christchurch has taken a permanent hit, and will never reach its former level. A shame really, because I've loved the place every time I have visited.

James said...

The Government must obtain more revenue to pay for the reconstruction.Reverse the last round of tax cuts.Impose a capital gains tax.Further charge a levy on high income earners and the wealthy. Raise the corporate tax rate. All MPs should be charged a percentage levy on their salaries.
The government must not sell off our Power Companies (SOEs).They are bringing in much needed Income and profits.
The economy has reached the end of growth permanently! Why? Peak production of oil has gone and we can look forward to ever more expensive oil and oil price spikes. That is draining more money out of our economy. High oil prices have beaten down the World economy with the free market fist of scarcity.(Refer Richard Heinberg's book:"The end of Growth".Expensive air travel will lessen tourism here.Point!We'll have less monet to dispose of.
We are a minnow compared to a Blue Whale economically compared to Japan therefore our rebuild will be much harder than theirs of Kobe. Because of the now declining oil era (Cheap Oil gone for ever) Some like R.Atack of think ChCh will never be rebuilt---I hope he's wrong.
The Neo-liberal economic cult we live under today extols the individual's freedom to profit from his endeavours and completely negates the social democratic approach of the commonwealth and patriotism for your land and people.Example: If you don't pay me what I am worth and can get overseas well! I'll leave and get a job there. This to me does not bode well that we will get those with surplus wealth to contribute willingly for this effort nor do I think Mr Key has the stomach to impose these measures.The wealth worship cult is based on a lack of concern for those who don't share your good fortune!

Olwyn said...

When I see comments like yours Anonymous, I fear NZ is turning into the sort of country that kiwis called South Africa to account for being in 1981.

You pay a larger proportion of tax because NZ wages on the whole are low. So would you like your tax burden to be eased by others earning higher wages and hence paying a higher proportion? Let me guess, probably not. Because you will also have a "reason" why wages should be low.

Then there is unemployment. People without the wealth to create their own businesses, and businesses that do not need them in sufficient numbers. Increase the public service so as to mop them up? Heavens no. Give them loans to start cottage industries, as some NGOs have done in 3rd world countries? I am sure there would be something wrong with that too. Reward businesses that contribute to employment and punish those of a large enough size that do not - OMG that would mean interference with the market, we don't want that!

Labour camps, however, that's OK, despite the fact that the levels of unemployment you talk about have mushroomed under the present government, and were relatively low under the previous government, suggesting that most people really do prefer to work when they can. And you yourself, I take it, are so far above the storm that you could never be a candidate for such a scheme.

This sort of thinking(if you can call it that) is slowly destroying this country, and has already driven a large proportion of our workforce away.

Anonymous said...

"Chris refrains from mentioning the other side of the equation - the absence of contribution from the 350,000 working-age welfare-guzzling parasites who for too long have expected the rest of us to finance their lifestyle choices."

Perhaps you should wait until you have learned why we have a welfare state, before you mouth off. You appear not to understand at all.

You really don't.

Sad, really.

peterquixote said...

From Christchurch dudes:
One of my friends is in Balclutha,
another in Winton in the South,
three of my colleagues are refugees in Wellington,
my daughter escaped to Australia,
My girlfriend has become a neurotic
and the sweet rain pours down upon our troubles

sustento said...

Chris, I'm glad you mention WWII. As a historian I'm sure you can remember back to the 1930s and how the First Labour government revitalised the economy. We are going to need some serious stimulus to get things going again. The NZ economy has been going backwards for a few years now, with the government not being able to realise the impact that the debt deleveraging is having. It's death by a thousand cuts...a slow descent that can be very hard to stop.

This proposal calls for an injection of new money to replace debt. More debt is not the answer and taxes simply redistribute without helping the overall economy.

Christchurch can be rebuilt. It's how we do it that will really matter.

Paul said...

The tax burden falls disproportionately on highest income earners who pay PAYE, not on the wealthiest. Wealth inequality is significantly higher in NZ than income inequality, and most (c. 92%) is held in property. If we had a decent, comprehensive capital gains tax, that would bring in some more fairness into the tax system, as well as making it more broad-based.

Progressive taxation, if it is to be truly progressive, needs to tax wealth as well as income. Historically this has worked in NZ in favour of the little guy, like when the Liberals instituted an absentee landowners' tax.

sustento said...


You may be interested in this proposal for a Guaranteed Minimum Income. This would replace social welfare completely with a single payment to all citizens. This would be funded by a simple (but comprehensive) wealth tax set at approximately 1% plus income tax at 40%. The higher the wealth tax the lower the income tax etc.

This proposal is part of a complete overhaul of the current financial structure and has been fully costed.

Loz said...

The efforts of volunteers in Christchurch and Queensland have reminded me of how much value a single pair of hands can be within the community.

The country could not afford a commercial engagement to achieve what thousands of conscientious and community minded New Zealanders have. Rubble and silt has been shifted, roads and paths cleared, gardens and yards reclaimed. There can be no doubt that the community is richer through the selfless efforts from many.

Also true is that all of those involved are personally richer for rediscovering community and receiving the heartfelt thanks of every person they have assisted. Our people continue to be the greatest asset of this nation.

The left wing traditionally acknowledged the importance of meaningful work for all members of society. I would suggest that any work that directly benefits “those in need” within our community is meaningful and the social effects will be felt by those who benefitted and those who provided their labour for a lime time to come.

Our country is facing economic problems that could well dwarf the destruction of the Canterbury Earthquake. We have thousands of unemployed kiwis at a time that our nation desperately needs its citizens to roll up their sleeves.

The left seemed to have "turned the tables" over the past 30 years. Instead of thundering traditional arguments that all have a right to perform meaningful work, the chorus of the new left is about the provision of benefits without accepting the paramount need of all to play a meaningful role in the environment we inhabit.

Receiving cash for nothing harms the psychological and social wellbeing of all beneficiaries while tempting the angst of the overburdened middle class. I firmly believe that the vast majority of beneficiaries would welcome having a day or two of meaningful work in a week as a reason to get out of the house as socialise in a positive way with others.

I do not advocate punitive and pointless 1930's type Labour relief gangs or “work for the dole” but I do believe there is no end rewarding and valuable work that could be undertaken in every part of the nation. What is worthy of investigation is how the community of Canterbury were able to prioritise and directly allocate labour that if found at its disposal.

As the economic crisis of New Zealand continues to unfold, I can’t help but wonder why we assume that thousands of beneficiaries would rather sit at home than provide helping hands within our community. Canterbury has shown what can be achieved.

sustento said...


I've been out volunteering with the Student Army and it's been a great experience. But I've lost count of the groups working together to make things happen and not much of it has come from "official" sources. It's been a self-organising system operating at a needs based level.

I'm not sure whether you were commenting on the Guaranteed Minimum Income but id like to raise the following points:

- removing welfare with a GMI frees people up to do any type of work, whether paid or not. There is no penalty or loss of "benefit". I would suggest people are more likely to undertake community based work when there is no fear around their income.

- recognising unpaid work is incredibly important. Work in the home and work in the community is the oil that keeps society running.

- A GMI could be conditional, given on the basis that a person is contributing in some form: full or part time work, volunteering in the community, caring for the sick or raising children. There's no shortage of available work, it just may not be formally paid. With a GMI people are free to expand into that need.