More & Better: Only Christchurch's Mayor and Council have demonstrated a willingness to dream dreams and see visions about their city's future. But, when it comes to the Government's handling of the insurance industry, streamlining the recovery bureaucracies, and delivering decisive and inspiring leadership; all the rest of New Zealand has seen is a series of massive failures.
ONLY THOSE WHO have lived through the Canterbury earthquakes really know what the last 12 months have been about. Non-Cantabrians have watched the tragedy unfold from the comfort of solid houses standing on solid ground. In the fortunate country known as “The Rest of New Zealand” electricity flows at the flick of a switch, water at the twist of a tap, and calls of nature are answered indoors, in private, and without a second thought. For thousands of Christchurch residents, however, second thoughts have become second nature.
In one vital respect, being a citizen of “The Rest of New Zealand” is of real assistance to Cantabrians. By affording much broader perspectives on the processes of recovery and reconstruction it allows us to see from far away trends and issues which may be difficult to recognise up-close.
Three massive failures stand out among the recovery efforts visible from afar. The first is the massive failure of the Government to assert the rights of Cantabrians (and, indeed, of New Zealand as a whole) over the commercial interests of the insurance industry. The second is the massive failure of the city’s multiple bureaucracies to provide Cantabrians with the swift, efficient and effective remedies they so desperately need. And the third is the massive failure of Christchurch’s leaders to infuse the city’s reconstruction and rebirth with vital and visionary energy.
ONLY A SOVEREIGN STATE possesses the power and resources to force corporate entities as large as New Zealand’s domestic and international insurers and reinsurers to hasten and facilitate, rather than delay and frustrate, the full recognition and payment of claims. The state, alone, has the power to tax; the power to regulate; and, ultimately, the power to create its own insurance companies. Armed with such powers, and the clear willingness to use them, the New Zealand state – like the similarly disaster-plagued state of Queensland – should have been able to bend the insurers to its will.
What is now evident, however, is that our government somehow signalled to the insurance industry that the New Zealand state was not of a mind to play hard-ball when it came to ensuring Cantabrians’ expectations of receiving the full replacement value of their ruined homes would be fulfilled. In turn, this failure led to the deeply flawed scheme for relocating those luckless residents whose properties lie in the irremediable “Red Zones” of Christchurch.
The Government’s scheme is unaccountably (but conveniently) blind to the many and significant class differences embedded in Christchurch’s social geography – and their all-too-real reflection in property prices. Movement from east to west across the city will inevitably leave residents of the eastern Red Zones many thousands of dollars out of pocket. Their only alternative to accepting this dispossession by government decree is to “argue it out” with their insurance company. Advice tantamount to suggesting that a mouse “argue it out” with a lion!
THE GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE to tame these insurance lions has led ineluctably to the other massive failures.
A state sufficiently confident of its own power to address and resolve the insurance obstacle wouldn’t have hesitated to take the measures necessary to bring into close alignment – or even merge – the bureaucratic structures Christchurch citizens have been obliged to supplicate.
But instead of an Alexander the Great or a Napoleon: someone with the force of personality and vision to cut through the bureaucratic knots and introduce a new and efficient system of meeting Cantabrians’ needs; the people of Christchurch have been forced to negotiate a bureaucratic labyrinth worthy of Franz Kafka. Instead of the smooth hum of public agencies working together, we hear the loud metallic groans of bureaucratic cogs and wheels grinding against one another.
And the only visible remedy to the sloth and inefficiency of the Earthquake Commission, Environment Canterbury, the Christchurch City Council, CERA and the numerous government authorities, agencies, ministries and departments, has been to take one’s grievance to The Press or Campbell Live.
“The Rest of New Zealand” has not been impressed.
AND SO WE COME to the third massive failure: the failure of leadership. Viewed from afar, Christchurch appears to have at least three bosses: one elected, one appointed and one imposed. But who of these three: the Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker; the CEO of CERA, Roger Sutton; or, the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee – is really in charge?
That the question can even be posed reveals the scale of the problem.
From afar, only Mayor Parker seems seized of a vision for his city’s re-birth, and his council’s visionary “Share an Idea” campaign about the shape of Christchurch’s new heart the only truly inspirational effort “The Rest of New Zealand” has witnessed – apart, of course, from the sheer, day-to-day heroism of ordinary Cantabrians themselves.
Over the next twelve months the people of Christchurch deserve more – and better.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 August 2011.