Tuesday 15 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Give Us The Tools

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.


Unknown said...


You are indeed a character. It's hard to believe you are still lamenting the demise of the Ministry of Works! Perhaps it's time to write a ballad and start a new musical genre. You could call it.. lets see - I know, 'the Socialists lament'.

To the tune of 'home, home on the range'....

When I was young, and Micky's shadow was still on the land
New Zeland had then, blokes who were men
and we all lived our lives in God's hand.


Sing, sing with me friends, of a time that is over and past,
Employment was full, just like my old uncle Bill, it was great but it just didn't last.

One thing we knew, it was trusted and true, before our MP's were jerks,
If trouble arose, and we suffered life's blows
We could rely upon the Ministry of Works.


Christchurch will be rebuilt, with or without Government assistance, and the sooner we can get started, the better it will be for everyone, employees, employers and beneficiaries.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit risky invoking the memory of the Economic Stabilisation Act, but otherwise a good column piece. Of course, in the old days, the Reserve Bank would be part of the mix rather than autonomous. How kind of the Governor to consult with the finance minister before taking the extraordinary step of lowering the OCR below the inflation rate, and what a big contribution it was to reconstruction (irony intended).

peterquixote said...

Chris say:
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?
and I say, we have the tools Chris, we use them every day, and we are making progress.

peterquixote said...

we are doing very well here Chris, every day we make progress

Nick said...

The old MOWD was nicknamed Ministry of Waste and Destruction. We always used to joke that it was a retirement home for graduate engineers embarking on a career. The reality is that they did a brilliant job because they were an engineering shop with rigorous practices. The foolishness of the Rogernomics argument that MOWD were innefficient compared to the market mechanism was that the rigorous standards were severely compromised by the market. As money took primacy standards may not have been compromised but the move is definitely to "you get what you pay for" which tends to be adherence to the minimum.

More importantly as you say the body of expertise, the peer review and local knowledge coupled with a capacity to deliver is severely missed.

Anonymous said...

"Back then most New Zealanders looked upon the state as their friend and ally."
Well real estate agents and developers still do!

jh said...

You are indeed a character. It's hard to believe you are still lamenting the demise of the Ministry of Works! Perhaps it's time to write a ballad and start a new musical genre. You could call it.. lets see - I know, 'the Socialists lament'.
Perhaps you could explain how we built those canals and dams in the Mckenzie basin and why the public should subsidise developers (who want to bring more and more people in) by paying for more large infrastructure projects such as a tunnel under Auckland harbour.

Round the bend said...

In an era where quarterly financial reports and annual bonuses are the primary drivers of our society we face the very real risk of seeing Christchurch being reconstructed as a morass of tilt slab boxes. Quick to build, highly profitable in the short term and quick to deconstruct.

Chris, your comments are profoundly relevant in this time.

Loz said...

Haiti is a perfect example of how lack of tools has hampered efforts to rebuild a small nation. A year after their earthquake small teams of people are paid by the government pick away at twisted wreckage as all heavy equipment is in private hands that demand profit for its use. I have no doubt that New Zealand would be in a better position if it could utilise public owned equipment for clearance and construction.

Although Haiti is all about the tools, I actually believe earthquake recovery in Chile is a better example of the problems that lie ahead for New Zealand.

The incoming presidency of Sebastián Piñera took office only two weeks after the earthquake. Piñera (who happens to be one of the richest men in South America) is not able to initiate the type of free-market reforms often associated with wealthy business interests, partly due to the recent economic and political history of Chile and partly due to competing interests within his coalition. The government could be viewed as surprisingly moderate in a similar outlook as the government of John Key.

Unsurprisingly, as part of rebuilding, the government of Chile flagged "non-vital" asset sales as a partial means to fund reconstruction. What is much more of a surprise from a right wing coalition is that a 3% corporate tax rate increase was legislated along with an increase in Royalty fees from mining companies and a 0.25% real estate tax on the top 5% of properties sold to assist in funding reconstruction.

Even with the additional state revenue in Chile, shortages of funds have (probably) left a majority of those displaced from the quake 12 months ago without adequate housing as a result of the market led reconstruction.

What really troubles me is the financing of reconstruction. It is unimaginable that National will entertain corporate or property taxes as a means to keeping debt under control. Mr Key has already rejected the idea of Capital Gains taxes and property taxes recommended by the IMF for the purpose of reconstruction. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this scenario is going to play out.

The projected $18 billion government deficit is astronomical. As no additional measures are being made to recoup government costs I can only assume that a crisis will be left to brew for "tough measures" in the budget of 2012.

Naomi Klein has done a lot of writing in recent years about "Disaster Capitalism" and the shock doctrine. She observed major implementations of unpopular, and un-mandated free market reforms are normally pushed as a response to a crisis (either real or artificially developed). Free Market reforms are presented as "the only option" or “fete de complete “and are normally rammed down the throat of a nation before it has time to protest. The financial crisis that is currently being left until after the election is obvious grounds for the next large scale attack on the public service and infrastructure of the nation.

The Earthquake may be more disastrous for the welfare of the country than any of us are currently aware.