Give Us The Tools: Had the Christchurch Earthquake struck in the years before the dismantling of the social-democratic state, New Zealand would have been much better prepared to deal with the catastrophe. In the Age of Neoliberalism is our anorexic state equal to the challenge of reconstruction?
IT’S IN ALL of us now, a deep sense of foreboding. The nagging feeling that this disaster may be too big for us. Or, worse, that the people whose job it is to fix it may be too small. And the feeling is growing.
For many Cantabrians last Friday’s images from Japan were the final straw. A cosmic punchline without a preceding joke. As if God was determined to prove his point:
"See, I told you things could be worse."
Meanwhile, the political Punch & Judy Show rolls on. The Prime-Ministerial motorcade continues to pick its way through shattered streets to yet another rendezvous with the television cameras. The Mayor demonstrates the use of chemical toilets.
Only reluctantly has the news media been persuaded to turn around and take a closer look at Punch and Judy’s audience. "Refugee City" (as web-designer Peter Hyde memorably described the Christchurch without power, water or sewerage) is grimy, unwashed, smells to high-heaven – and is running on empty.
The adrenaline-fuelled exertions of the first three weeks of the crisis are behind them. They’ve survived. The challenge facing Refugee Christchurch now is how to put the broken pieces of their lives back together. Many have simply no idea. And finding someone – anyone – capable of giving a straight answer to their straight questions requires more energy than many now possess.
For this audience, the Punch & Judy Show is starting to wear a little thin.
Specialists in disaster relief talk about the moment when stoicism and altruism run out. When blaming God or Mother Nature is no longer enough. When those in charge cease to be given the benefit of the doubt. When people stop watching Punch and Judy and start blaming them.
The authorities seldom have more than three months to get ahead of the Blame Game. If the disaster remediation process is not in full-swing by then, things can turn very ugly, very quickly.
Even before the second, killer, earthquake struck on 22 February, there was evidence of rising dissatisfaction with the way the Government and the City Council were dealing with the damage and disruption caused by the first, non-lethal, quake of 4 September. The double-blow delivered to Christchurch almost certainly means that the time available to politicians to produce a road-map to recovery is a lot less than three months.
Hence the sense of foreboding. Hence the sinking feeling that those charged with mastering this crisis may not have what it takes.
If this disaster had struck New Zealand in 1961, 1971, or even in 1981, then the government of the day would have been much better equipped to deal with it. In the Ministry of Works it would’ve possessed not only a team of world-class engineers, architects and urban planners, but a seasoned, highly-skilled and extremely efficient construction force.
Prior to the Rogernomics revolution of the 1980s, Government’s were also able to avail themselves of powerful war-time legislation – such as the Economic Stabilisation Act – to regulate and co-ordinate the economic life of the nation. Prices, wages, rents and dividends could all be controlled with the flourish of a ministerial pen.
Much more important than these advantages, however, was the social-democratic political culture of the pre-Rogernomics era. Back then most New Zealanders looked upon the state as their friend and ally. No sensible person would have questioned it’s central role in the reconstruction of a quake-struck Christchurch. The State’s ownership of banks and insurance companies, telecommunications, broadcasting services, road, rail, air and maritime transport networks would have materially hastened the planning and initiation of the recovery process. Calculating the private sector’s profit margin would not have been permitted to slow it down.
Since 1985, however, New Zealanders have witnessed the wholesale transfer of economic power from the state to the private sector. Our ability to act decisively in our own interest – through publicly owned institutions – has been decisively diminished.
In place of the conscious public activity which gave us the economic and social infrastructure of a modern nation, we have substituted the unconscious co-ordination of the Market.
That’s fine, if all you’re after is a better cup of coffee, or a cheaper television set. It’s not so fine, however, if there are homeless and jobless citizen’s to care for, and a stricken community to rebuild.
We know this – and it worries us. Because we’re not confident that the people who convinced us that a better cup of coffee and a cheaper television set were a fair swap for the public institutions and collective effort which built this nation will ever be big enough to acknowledge their mistake.
Damaged city and damaged nation can only be restored by using the same tools that created them. If we can’t find someone big enough to wield those tools, Refugee Christchurch will soon become Refugee New Zealand.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 March 2011.