Pontius Brownlee: The Press's Al Nisbet's trenchant view of Christchurch Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee's, lofty denial of the city's acute rental crisis epitomises the growing sense of disconnection between the Government, its bureaucratic Czars, and the people of Christchurch.
IF POLITICS is mostly about perception, then, looking at Christchurch, this Government’s in big trouble. Because, perception-wise, this Government’s handling of the rebuilding of New Zealand’s second city hasn’t just gone from Bad to Worse; Worse is sending Gerry Brownlee post-cards.
The “reality” of the situation may be very different from people’s perceptions – it usually is. But the very fact that Cantabrians are having immense difficulty translating the reality of their everyday lives into anything remotely resembling the Government’s spin is a problem in itself. If disaster management isn’t grounded in telling disaster victims the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then it isn’t management – it’s mismanagement.
And that’s the problem this Government’s faces: an awful lot of people living in Christchurch appear to have stopped believing that they’re being told even a fraction of the whole truth. And, once truth walks out the door, can trust be far behind? Is it possible to rebuild a great city without truth or trust? Is the Government conducting an experiment?
What are these bad perceptions? What is Worse describing to Gerry Brownlee on those post-cards?
The worst perception: the one from which so many other bad perceptions flow; is that the politicians were either never in charge, or, at some early stage, lost control of the rebuild. That somewhere; shielded from the media, invisible to the public; are the individuals and institutions who are really calling the shots on Christchurch’s future.
If you were to ask Cantabrians who these people/institutions were, most would give you a simple, three word, answer: The Insurance Companies.
Two-thirds of the cost of the Christchurch rebuild is expected to come from the insurance and reinsurance industry. That’s what the Government has said, publicly and repeatedly. They’re certainly not keen to extend their responsibilities very far beyond those associated with the EQC. The reconstruction of Christchurch is intended to be a market-driven affair. State intervention – beyond what’s already been signalled – is not on the Government’s agenda.
By letting the big insurance companies know that the pace and scope of the Christchurch rebuild are in their hands, the Government has effectively walked away from the table – or that, at least, is the perception.
It’s why everything is seen to be moving with such glacial slowness. The insurers and reinsurers naturally want to minimise their exposure. They know if they wait, the pressure on the reconstruction agencies will grow, and, before long, concessions will start to flow. In this context, what possible incentive could the insurance industry have for speeding things up? The longer it delays, the more concessions flow its way. The more concessions that flow its way, the more money it saves.
It’s hardly rocket science.
But, it is grossly unfair. Because the money saved by the insurance industry is money that would otherwise have gone into the pockets of Cantabrians. It’s the money they would have used to move on, to strike down new roots in new parts of Christchurch, to get the builders actually building.
Without that money, rebuilding becomes impossible. And so they are forced to seek temporary accommodation – along with everybody else. Tradespeople and their families, moving en masse to Christchurch to rebuild devastated homes and infrastructure, are forced to compete with thousands of Cantabrians who cannot live in their red-stickered homes, yet lack the resources to rebuild them. Add to this, the demands of university students, and the normal flow of young people from family nest to independent living, and suddenly, you’ve got a major rental housing crisis.
Except that you don’t – at least, not according to the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee. The Mayor, Bob Parker, disagrees, but his objections count for very little these days. The Christchurch City Council – the only democratically elected representative body still operating in the city – is about to lose all say over the future shape of its CBD. In place of an elected Mayor and councillors, Cantabrians will see responsibility for re-constituting Christchurch’s shattered heart handed over to an appointed Czar.
“Yes, let’s give a big, warm, Canterbury welcome to the man who gave Auckland its ‘super-city’. Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr Maaarrrrk Ford!”
It’s hard to imagine an appointment more likely to strengthen the perception that the last people to be asked anything, told anything, or given anything, are the people of Christchurch themselves. Their Government has relinquished its responsibilities to foreign financial giants. Their regional and city councils have already been, or are about to be, politically emasculated. And their day-to-day-lives have been reduced to mere administrative Lego in the hands of over-paid, over-powered, unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.
At least, such are Cantabrians’ perceptions.
If the reality is something different, then, respectfully, Mr Brownlee, Mr Parker, Mr Sutton and Mr Ford: tell the people of Christchurch what it is.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 April 2012.