Tuesday 1 March 2011

Reflections on the Christchurch Earthquake: Acts of God and Acts of Man

Does Anyone Know Where The Love Of God Goes?: In the face of the earth's blind indifference to human suffering, it is only our species' instinct to reach out and offer assistance that offers the hope of recovery. When disaster has a human origin, however, our altruistic impulses are often deliberately thwarted. Why is that?

I WONDER if Paula Rebstock will be brave enough to tell the thousands of quake-struck Cantabrians who have just lost their livelihoods to get busy "job-seeking".

She wouldn’t dare.

The heartbreaking events of last Tuesday have disrupted the lives of thousands of Christchurch families. Looking east across the city’s devastated eastern suburbs one is daunted by the massive scale of this disaster.

Most New Zealanders have become uncomfortably familiar with the grim scenes of tragedy in Central Christchurch. But very few Kiwis yet grasp just how many Cantabrians are struggling to survive in ordinary suburban streets much like their own.

In these streets you will not find the wrenching drama of the collapsed CTV and Pyne Gould Group buildings, but do not believe for one moment that the after-effects of Tuesday’s killer quake will be any less crushing.

If someone is trapped in a building, the task is simple: get them out. But what do you do when the tasks looming ahead of you are too numerous and frightening to contemplate?

How do you cope when liquefaction has sunk and twisted the foundations of your home and filled the rooms with raw sewage? How do you keep track of Civil Defence advice when there is no electricity to power your radio – and the bathroom transistor lies in pieces on the floor? How do you keep up your family’s morale when the nearest drinkable water is twenty-minutes walk, and sixty-minutes wait, from your front gate? When the family toilet is a hole in the ground?

How can you plan ahead when your employer’s business lies in ruins on the other side of the police cordon? How is he supposed to even make up last week’s pay? And, if, as you suspect, your job has gone, is the company in any position to offer redundancy? How will you continue to pay the mortgage on a house you can no longer live in, from an income stream that no longer exists?

Multiply these questions a thousand-fold and you begin to get some idea of what lies ahead for the people of Christchurch.

And, naturally, their fellow New Zealanders are responding with generosity. There’s simply no question of WINZ employees grilling quake-afflicted mums and dads about their job-seeking efforts. No one’s going to threaten them with "sanctions" if they can’t produce evidence of positions applied for, and interviews attended. When people’s joblessness, homelessness, acute depression and deteriorating health are attributable to an Act of God, we do not blame them – we do everything within our power to help them.

So why is the Chair of the Welfare Working Group, Paula Rebstock, who wouldn’t dream of denying assistance to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake, so ready to harass and punish the victims of man-made disasters?

When a firm goes belly up. When a Board of Directors decides to shut down their uncompetitive New Zealand factories and relocate the manufacturing side of the business to Thailand. When a public-servant-hating Government throws scores of innocent, hard-working New Zealanders out of their jobs. It’s then that the people on the receiving end, through no fault of their own, are confronted with many of the same questions currently challenging the residents of Christchurch’s eastern suburbs.

They may not have experienced physical liquefaction, but the solid foundations upon which they believed their lives had been built have crumbled and sunk away just the same. The power and the water may still be on in their houses, but how do they keep these utilities flowing with no money coming in? How do they pay the mortgage? And, when in it comes to shame and embarrassment, telling family and friends that you’ve lost your job is right up there with having to squat over a hole in the backyard.

Help will come quickly to the people of the eastern suburbs. It must – or Cantabrian morale will collapse, psychological depression will set in, family violence will soar, and a calamitous natural disaster will be compounded by the effects of a social catastrophe.

Paula Rebstock tells us that the number of New Zealanders on benefits is already a social catastrophe, and her report proposes a series of harsh and uncompromising measures to shrink the welfare rolls. It seems to regard beneficiaries not as the victims of disasters they did not make, but must somehow endure: unemployment; spousal abuse or abandonment; mental illness; physical and/or intellectual disability: but as hopelessly dependent children.

Beneficiaries, according to Ms Rebstock, have become the prisoners of their own, and others’, low expectations – and only paid work can set them free.

I dare her to use that sort of exclusionary and condescending language to describe the struggling families of the eastern suburbs.

What the innocent victims of God’s acts, and Man’s, need most is our help – not our disdain.

This essay was sent for publication in The Press of Tuesday, 1 March 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: The Government’s assistance package, announced on Monday, 28 February, further highlights the curious distinction our political leaders continue to draw between Acts of God and Acts of Man. If you’ve lost your job because of the earthquake you’re immediately entitled to receive $500.00 per week (close to the minimum wage). But, if you’ve lost your job because your employer has just been bought out by a multinational company, you’re entitled (after a stand-down period of 12 weeks) to an unemployment benefit of just $294.00 per week (56 percent of the minimum wage). Nothing could better illustrate the punitive assumptions built into our welfare system.


Tiger Mountain said...

Had similar thoughts the last several days Chris. Capitalism and this tory government daily dispenses ‘disasters’ of various flavours with damaging effects on human lives. Bill English and Whitehead from Treasury gleefully discard public servants. The damage they have done.

Re “Quakechurch” a worry is some of those with resources have voted with their feet and credit cards already. Will the city remain a damaged sub New Orleans with a rump population?

Anonymous said...

Well said.


Olwyn said...

A very good piece Chris, and it certainly put things in perspective when this so-called WWG report came out on the same day as the earthquake struck.

However, this attack on the poor continues to permeate everything, including the earthquake coverage, with looters put before us for vilification, carrying the implication of "this is what "they" are like." Then there's the ad with the Plunket nurse, relieved when the door is answered by a "decent" mum. The continuing story is that there's a group of people who are other than you, whom you should fear and should not care about, characterised by the vulgar evaluative term "underclass." The characteristics attributed to these people are then generalised to include everyone who is unemployed or low-paid. Meanwhile the exercise in dispossession continues unabated, with privatised prisons and perhaps also privatised welfare for "investors" to look forward to.

It is evil, frightening, far more dangerous than the people who take the bait realise, and should be challenged more often.

Anonymous said...

There's no such thing as a welfare victim of Man-made disasters.

Welfare has become an acceptable lifestyle choice to the benecriminals and the successive Labour governments who have encouraged their indolence, rather than a safety net for those who do believe in contributing to society.

It is only just and proper that the benecriminals are disabused of the notion that everyone else is financially responsible for their lifestyle choices. For too long, decent Kiwis have had to bear the overwhelming social and economic burden that the Labour-voting layabouts comprise.

No more. Decent Kiwis need support in Canterbury. An opportunity cost of supporting Canterbury should be the Welfare State. We need the decent, deserving Kiwis of Christchurch, we don't need the overbreeding benecriminals of the Labour electorate.

Anonymous said...

Notice that in Rebstock the right is doing its usual thing of relying on people with limited qualifications (either insufficient, as in this case – surely someone with a doctoral degree is needed. A masters degree is not really sufficient training) or from degree mills (like Rodney Hide).

For a movement that claims to be based on a modern approach to economics, the right seem to have a lot of trouble finding reputably qualified people to front for them.

jack said...

Well said – as usual – Mr Trotter.

But I don’t think the issue is a party political issue. And I wish the Labour Party (in particular) would stop playing it as such. It’s a community issue. It needs a community solution.

I’m old enough to have experienced several ‘recessions and recoveries’. For all but the most recent, I’ve been in a position to see the ‘inside story.’ And, for each recovery, the supply of jobs has shrunk – sometimes alarmingly. That’s a fact. Efficiency is great, but, a good algorithm and some cheap RAM can have a major impact on both productivity and unemployment – although one is a positive effect and the other is not.

There’s a fundamental flaw in the ‘just get a job’ model. It’s time that we accepted that the old employment opportunities are behind us. And they aren’t coming back. We need to find a new model.

Offering training places to teach people how to get up in the morning, how to grow pumpkins, or how to groom horses will not solve the problem. But neither will shouting at the unemployed.

We, as a community, need to recognise the new reality. We need to work together to find new solutions. We won’t get a different outcome by doing what we have already done over and over and over. And, as much as I like Mary Wilson, et al, the process will not be aided by a weekly ‘Who’s to blame?’

Also, in the meantime, there are going to be people who need to eat. And I am sure there are people who are going to need help to pay their rent.

Standard & Poor’s might not like the new reality; but after Lehman Bros and others they are hardly in a position to play the expert card.

The first step to fining a NEW solution is recognising that we have a NEW problem.

peterquixote said...

this is our eathquake dude,
Canterbury we suffer, we lose our homes and City it is our broken not yours,
you have little right to muse it in your blog,
if you want to be rabid and weak
just join Kiwipolitco,
be Pablo be Lew write drivel

Cactus Kate said...

Stop attempting to politicise the quake Chris. Welfare IS for these sort of events.

To say a worker laid off, capable of getting more work from another business is as deserving as a Christchurch worker who cannot go to work because work has been literally destroyed, is rubbish.

Christchurch people aren't asking for permanent welfare, they are asking for a temporary stop gap until they can either obtain work or have their shattered lives rebuilt.

Government won't be doing this, private enterprise will be.

Unknown said...

Chris, it feels somewhat cynical and opportunistic for you to use the earthquake to score cheap political points, or to make comparisons over the relative merits of welfare entitlement.

People are dead. Lives are destroyed, a community is suffering.

Let's respect what people are going through here in Christchurch; after shocks are continuing as I type.

Give us a couple of weeks grace, and then you can wind up the old gramophone again.

Anonymous said...

"Stop attempting to politicise the quake Chris".
He's not - seems to me he's pleading to de-politicise economic catastrophes, in the same way we have de-politicised the quake.
He has a consistent approach to pain and suffering irrespective of its external origin - you don't

Loz said...

The requirement for the state to provide for those in need appears as universally accepted. This principle has always been rejected by the right wing. Highlighting the obvious need for the "visible hand of the state", I guess, is "politicising" the situation.

We should acknowledge the collective willingness of the nation to support supporting Canterbury emotionally and financially. After the 1931 Napier Earthquake the Depression era government refused international donations for the ruined city as its ideology stubbornly viewed acceptance of assistance as an acceptance of welfare or charity. Entrenched Ideology vilified all forms of welfare and extended hardships in Hawkes Bay. It would be nice to think that the glaring needs faced by our Cantabrian kin will be shouldered collectively and without question.

I am in no doubt that this is a time for community. A community within the south and a community of the nation. Selfishness and selfish acts of looters and profiteers deserve to be publicised and the offenders reviled. It takes a particularly twisted character to act on self-interest when so much suffering within the community exists.

Anonymous said...

The Coalition Government tried to borrow their way out of the situation in 1931, and by the end of the year it had to be bailed out by the Bank of England. The result was that the trading banks funded the government until the Reserve Bank was created, and the banks drove a hard bargain. The lesson is that if we, through the government, borrow in the financial markets to pay for reconstruction the interest rates will rise, and the costs will be crippling over time. I know that it sounds like Social Credit, but the Reserve Bank needs to fund public expenditure in the short term, since re-building large parts of major city is in the general public interest.

john said...

@Cactus Kate: you say "stop politicising the quake". What utter rot.
The quake being an 'Act of God' or a 'natural disaster' (and there, I've already put a spin on it) notwithstanding, the decisions subsequently made by the government are by their very nature political. Everything a government does has political ramifications of some kind of other, the government is not a 'neutral' player in society.
You seem to be strongly implying Kate that Bill English using the excuse of rebuilding Chch to put cutting WWF, not building the Auckland rail loop, and selling SOEs back, or should I say even more firmly on, the agenda is somehow not 'political' and thus we shouldn't be debating these issues. Funny, they sure as shit were political BEFORE the quake, so I reckon they sure as shit are now too.
Good luck with suggesting to Mr English that he stop "politicising the quake" Kate.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chris, you have expressed my feelings that first rose to the surface today as a bubble of anger, confusion and despair when I found out that I'd not been shortlisted for a job I really had my heart set on and was well qualified for.

It got me thinking....why is it that in New Zealand, we only seem to be capable of love, concern and generosity towards our neighbours after a horrific tragedy such as the Christchurch earthquake? Why do we turn our heads away and shrug our shoulders when our neighbours get made redundant, get divorced, have to sell their house as a mortgagee sale, or end up on a benefit for much longer than they ever intended, after a fruitless job search?

Why do we, as New Zealanders, take things a step further and start villifying these same people in the media, accusing them of being lazy bludgers and parasites, when we know full well that there are very few jobs available right now, and the few jobs on offer tend to be part-time, heavy labour (rules out women and older workers), or highly specialised?

Do I really have to (god forbid) lose a family member before anyone will extend me any sympathy on my frustrations in failing to find one of these elusive jobs, so that I can support myself without any government assistance?

To those of you lucky enough to be employed right now, please try to have a little compassion for those of us who have lost our self-esteem, our sense of purpose, our network of friends, and our pride.

Yes, obviously I feel very deeply for the people of Christchurch and I know their pain is a thousand times worse than mine. I'm not arguing otherwise. But beneficiaries are people too, and this recession is not of their making, we are just the collateral damage.

Placing extra pressures on beneficiaries right now (such as the silly requirement to provide evidence of applying for jobs every single week, whether they exist or not, instead of being able to focus on training) will only cause some people to snap, either in the form of mental illness, severe depression, or increased domestic violence and crime.

New Zealand, have a heart and remember, 'There but for the grace of God go I...'