Tuesday 21 June 2011

Who's In Charge And Where's The Plan?

Obviously Blind: The Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee, to whom aggrieved Cantabrians have turned for information and assistance does not appear to perceive the degree to which he and the Government have failed to meet the reasonable expectations of the people of Christchurch - and New Zealand. What we need is the fullest exertion of national will. What we've got is National ineptitude.

WATCHING HELPLESSLY as Cantabrians stoically retrace their steps through the stations of their city’s seismic crucifixion, the rest of New Zealand is demanding to know: “Who’s in charge?” and “Where’s the plan?”

Gerry Brownlee is the Minister in Charge of Re-building Christchurch. Bob Parker is the Mayor of Christchurch. Roger Sutton is the CEO of the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and Ian Simpson is head of the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

And onto a stage already crowded with people in charge, we note that the insurance and reinsurance companies; local and national politicians; the news media; and what remains of Canterbury civil society (employers, unions, heritage activists, architects, retailers, etc) have also invited themselves.

Viewed from a distance, Christchurch appears to be represented by a cross-talking, often bickering gaggle of increasingly irritable spokespeople. No one appears to have a plan, or, if they do, it’s a plan no one else is allowed to see.

Meanwhile, the quakes keep coming.

With mounting frustration, New Zealanders are watching their fellow citizens struggle through these bleak June days sans power, sans water, sans toilets – sans everything.

And you know what, Christchurch? The rest of New Zealand is getting bloody angry.

THE FIRST QUESTION we’d like answered is: “Is Christchurch caught up in one seismic event or many?”

It’s time the seismologists and earth-scientists came clean on this one. Because one thing is very clear: what’s happening in and around Christchurch is no ordinary seismic event.

If you doubt that, then just take a look at what’s happening in Japan. After experiencing one of the most devastating seismic shocks in recorded human history, Japan is well on the way to recovery. Sure, there have been aftershocks, but of lesser force, and they are dwindling.

That’s the typical seismic sequence after a major quake. But it does not appear to be what’s happening in Christchurch.

After millennia of stasis, the earth’s crust around Christchurch is on the move. Vast amounts of energy are being released as tectonic pressure realigns and redistributes itself. More than one seismologist has suggested that the process could take years, even decades. That may be a mere blink of the eye in geological time; but it’s an interminable wait for human-beings desperate to re-start their lives.

Surely it’s not beyond the resources of our government to summon this country’s own – and the world’s – leading seismologists to a scientific conference dedicated to making sense of what’s going on beneath Cantabrians’ feet? This country has some of the world’s best CGI animators; could they not be commissioned to represent graphically the best scientific consensus of what’s happening ten, twenty, thirty kilometres down?

All of us – but particularly the people of Christchurch – need to know what we’re living through.

THE SECOND QUESTION goes to the very heart of the dithering and inaction plaguing Christchurch’s recovery: “Has New Zealand forgotten how to exercise its national will?”

Are we no longer sufficiently generous as a nation to formulate a clear and resolute response to a disaster of this magnitude?

Have our leaders become too disdainful of their own people to ask them for the sort of courage and sacrifice the Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser asked of New Zealanders during the six long years of the Second World War?

Where are the swingeing increases in personal and corporate taxation that funded New Zealand’s war effort? Where are the drives for Christchurch Recovery Bonds? Where are the marshalled forces of the unemployed? The special training facilities dedicated to turning out carpenters, electricians, plumbers – all the trades required to rebuild a shattered city?

One of my very best friends is a richly qualified engineer and town- planner: why are his extraordinary skills un-needed; his visionary ideas un-heeded?

What in God’s name is wrong with our leaders?

Do they really believe that if they transgress against the “Holy Free Market” the ghost of Adam Smith (or, more appropriately, Ayn Rand) will strike them dead?

Do they not understand that the only “invisible hand” at work in New Zealand right now is the one that’s smashing Christchurch to pieces?

THE THIRD QUESTION follows naturally from the second: “Are we being held hostage by the institutions upon which our insurers’ reinsurers ultimately rely to meet their obligations – the international banks?”

Unwilling to ask their own people for the resources to rebuild the nation’s second city and, therefore, dependent upon the insurance industry (and its reinsurers) for the cash to commence Christchurch’s reconstruction, is the Government unwilling to release any recovery plans to which their finance-sector masters have not given prior approval?

BECAUSE if that really is the situation, then the Prime Minister would be better advised to organise a mass exodus of all quake-affected Cantabrians to Australia.

They’d be better paid, better housed, and altogether better off – across the Tasman.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 June 2011. 


Anonymous said...

Well said, what many of us are thinking. Ex Cantabrian

Peter Cresswell said...

Chris, your analysis is in error. If the ghosts of either Adam Smith (or, more appropriately, Ayn Rand) were really being listened to (as you suggest they have been), then Fletchers would not be up to their ears in politically-granted bonuses, and the politically-appointed "people in charge" would have got out of the way long ago so the people who actually do run the city, which is everyone else, could get on with exercising their insights and their division of labour unimpeded by the uncertainty and prohibitions put in place by the present regime.

In short, what the ghosts would be applauding would be an Enterprise Zone without the encumbances of tax and regulation--and political posturing--which is helping to paralyse NZ's second-biggest city.

Peter Cresswell

Allie said...

We never had earthquakes under Labour!

Sanctuary said...

I would dispute that Christchurch is particularly different from any other earthquake. Napier had a 7.8 shock followed by a 7.3 aftershock ten days later and a 7.1 some time after that, with a total of around 550 aftershocks in the following months. Theses aftershocks are not widely remembered simply because the devastation of the first earthquake was so complete.

None of this excuses the authoritarian, centralised and leisurely pace that this government seems to be taking to the plight of the people of Christchurch.

The entry in http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/historic-earthquakes/8 is instructive.

"...On 11 March 1931 the government appointed magistrate J. S. Barton and engineer L. B. Campbell as commissioners of Napier. Together with local committees they had the daunting task of organising reconstruction. This included restoring water supplies, replacing sewers, and repairing and inspecting houses before they could be reoccupied. Local survey plans and land titles had been destroyed, so all properties were resurveyed, and interim titles were issued.

Few insurance policies covered earthquakes, and many insurers refused to pay for fire damage that resulted from the quake. In 1931 Parliament had passed the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake Act, which provided loans for local companies and individuals to rebuild their premises. Because of the economic depression, however, the funds granted were far from adequate, and repayment terms were harsh. Much of the money for recovery came from charity, which poured in during the weeks after the quake..."

Note - 11th of March. Only five weeks after the main shake, and three weeks after a 7.3 aftershock!

Note - "together with local committees". So much for the CERA dictator King Gerry knowing best!

Note - The conservative government of the day provided exactly the same sort of miserable and rigidly doctrinaire financial approach to helping Napier as our current bunch of miserable, conservative dorks. Never let it be said a Tory ever changes his spots! It was, of course, the enlightened 1935 Labour government that saved Napier from bankruptcy and wrote off its loans. No wonder it took sixty years and the reduction of Hawke's Bay to a prostrate semi-feudal economy before Mssrs. Tremain and Lusk - local National Party grandees both - were able to smear their way to buying themselves the seat of Napier.

Napier was rebuilt and declared "reborn" in January 1933 - 23 months after its utter destruction. What is it with the delay in Christchurch?

Madison said...

Having abandoned Christchurch and now with the ability to watch from afar I have to say that there are 2 things holding up the whole affair, massive amounts of beauracracy and castrated modern politicians.

From friends still there I know that many insurance companies simply are waiting on all the information from EQC to get their work done. And all EQC keeps doing is telling them filing times and that they will eventually get surveys completed. This shows absolutely no signs of speeding up. A family member talking to their insurance agent was told that the company has all possible options sorted out and that within minutes of getting a final statement from the EQC they'll have a full settlement done. This might be the rare case but I've heard more similar stories from others.

I'd say the biggest problem would be the politicians. No one wants to step on too may toes, no one wants to suffer to much criticism and people are scared of possibly making the choice. Dammit, I had to wait a week to get the sewer fixed in February because the City wasn't checking the actual pipes as much as looking at their maps, and our street wasn't on their outdated map. If someone in charge diverted resources to this and simply made some serious decisions other than "just wait for another report" we could probably sort out a lot of housing issues already.

Personally I think it isn't over for Christchurch, hence my leaving, but I'm simply astounded by the total lack of action by politicians who are working the polls, hedging their bets and playing media games against each other. Roger Sutton needs to exert the will he was showing in the aftermath of both quakes and simply start pushing on everything to move. He's not elected and he shouldn't be subject to all that fear of the public.

If any decision was going to be made I think it's getting to be too late already.

Anonymous said...

Something stinks. Fletchers and their majority shareholders - the NZ Government - have their hands in the till. Until they are sidelined there will be just more bureaucratic tap dancing. Bureaucracy could not lead a thirsty horse to water and what you have is bureaucracy running the show.


Anonymous said...

The difference between NZ and Japan is that NZ had it's second biggest devastated while Japan's economic heartland was untouched.

If Osaka was destroyed then I doubt you would see a fast recovery.

The two situations are dissimilar.

Anonymous said...

It is ironical that we had an excellent response from the first response disaster teams as that is what they are trained to do.
However the follow up disaster relief teams in the form of EQC and all the other bureaucracies created in the form of CERA etc. are mired in their own muck that they are creating. They obviously had no plan B after a big disaster and are trying to make it up as they go. Christchurch is paying the price why the self-appointed emperors fiddle.

Michael said...

Knowledge is power, the government's approach is to say nothing that could be used against them. They play safe by shutting people out. They also avoid anything controversial - everything is compromise (not between opposing, expressed views of the public, but between their own closed door assessments of who will be upset most, and how much they matter?) This has worked well for National politically, but it doesn't work in the Christchurch situation because that needs real action and difficult choices. It also requires bold consultation with the citizens of Christchurch. Apparently the Labour leadership has totally missed this gross absence of participatory process - instead Mr. Goff says Mr. Key should have made big decisions sooner. In other words, be more authoritarian than you already are. Why does the leading party of the left not understand participation? I thought it would be right in their ball park (not to mention a wrecking ball to use on National). But then, this was the party that gave rise to the term 'nanny state'..

Anonymous said...

Is anyone apart from me outraged that the $100+ Million the Government is collecting in the form of the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal is being used not to help people directly but to replace infrastructure that should have been covered and may have been covered by insurance? Here is a statement from them to my query as to what is happening to the donation money. Why is the media silent on this?

"The Christchurch Earthquake Appeal was set up to address the gap between emergency support and core government resonsibilities. The fund will primarily restore community infrastructure that has been lost in Christchurch - things like sports grounds, swimming pools and community halls. The fund is also likely to assist in the restoration of heritage buildings. The two grants we have made are to assist school children to return to sport as quickly as possible.We do have provision for hardship relief , and we are currently taking advice from our Canterbury-based Advisory Board."

Brendan McNeill said...

There are those who make a living pontificating and, and then there are those who are tasked with delivering constructive outcomes in difficult and trying circumstances.

Why should we expect the former to empathize with the latter?

Anonymous said...

Writing this after the big announcement of the red/orange/green/white zones, the critique is still apposite. Also interesting that the banks have already got their advertising ready with financial packages for those ready to move from the red zone, and that TradeMe was recruited to do the new website. This government is obviously very good at collaborating with corporates and doing deals. After denigrating the public service as bloated it won't credibly promote the State as a reconstructive force, this must be left to the private sector. In any case, from the 1980s the public sector agencies were all expected to define their 'outputs' and 'outcomes' in the most narrow managerial terms. No sense of national purpose or collective effort required.

Key emphasised how much of 'our' GDP is apparently being affected by this disaster, but no sense of national emergency or collective effort is really necessary for him. So no rise in taxation, no real push for the Canterbury reconstruction bonds, and, of course, no printing of money through the central bank buying the bonds. This is what actually happens during wars, certainly during the 1940s, and this is the only way to get economic growth out of the reconstruction plan. Instead, the taxpayers will be left with a massive interest bill for the foreseeable future.

jh said...

THE FIRST QUESTION we’d like answered is: “Is Christchurch caught up in one seismic event or many?”

It’s time the seismologists and earth-scientists came clean on this one. Because one thing is very clear: what’s happening in and around Christchurch is no ordinary seismic event.
Tangatawhenua have been strangely quiet. Don't they know all about these things?