Tuesday 30 August 2011

Massive Failures

More & Better: Only Christchurch's Mayor and Council have demonstrated a willingness to dream dreams and see visions about their city's future. But, when it comes to the Government's handling of the insurance industry, streamlining the recovery bureaucracies, and delivering decisive and inspiring leadership; all the rest of New Zealand has seen is a series of massive failures.

ONLY THOSE WHO have lived through the Canterbury earthquakes really know what the last 12 months have been about. Non-Cantabrians have watched the tragedy unfold from the comfort of solid houses standing on solid ground. In the fortunate country known as “The Rest of New Zealand” electricity flows at the flick of a switch, water at the twist of a tap, and calls of nature are answered indoors, in private, and without a second thought. For thousands of Christchurch residents, however, second thoughts have become second nature.

In one vital respect, being a citizen of “The Rest of New Zealand” is of real assistance to Cantabrians. By affording much broader perspectives on the processes of recovery and reconstruction it allows us to see from far away trends and issues which may be difficult to recognise up-close.

Three massive failures stand out among the recovery efforts visible from afar. The first is the massive failure of the Government to assert the rights of Cantabrians (and, indeed, of New Zealand as a whole) over the commercial interests of the insurance industry. The second is the massive failure of the city’s multiple bureaucracies to provide Cantabrians with the swift, efficient and effective remedies they so desperately need. And the third is the massive failure of Christchurch’s leaders to infuse the city’s reconstruction and rebirth with vital and visionary energy.

ONLY A SOVEREIGN STATE possesses the power and resources to force corporate entities as large as New Zealand’s domestic and international insurers and reinsurers to hasten and facilitate, rather than delay and frustrate, the full recognition and payment of claims. The state, alone, has the power to tax; the power to regulate; and, ultimately, the power to create its own insurance companies. Armed with such powers, and the clear willingness to use them, the New Zealand state – like the similarly disaster-plagued state of Queensland – should have been able to bend the insurers to its will.

What is now evident, however, is that our government somehow signalled to the insurance industry that the New Zealand state was not of a mind to play hard-ball when it came to ensuring Cantabrians’ expectations of receiving the full replacement value of their ruined homes would be fulfilled. In turn, this failure led to the deeply flawed scheme for relocating those luckless residents whose properties lie in the irremediable “Red Zones” of Christchurch.

The Government’s scheme is unaccountably (but conveniently) blind to the many and significant class differences embedded in Christchurch’s social geography – and their all-too-real reflection in property prices. Movement from east to west across the city will inevitably leave residents of the eastern Red Zones many thousands of dollars out of pocket. Their only alternative to accepting this dispossession by government decree is to “argue it out” with their insurance company. Advice tantamount to suggesting that a mouse “argue it out” with a lion!

THE GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE to tame these insurance lions has led ineluctably to the other massive failures.

A state sufficiently confident of its own power to address and resolve the insurance obstacle wouldn’t have hesitated to take the measures necessary to bring into close alignment – or even merge – the bureaucratic structures Christchurch citizens have been obliged to supplicate.

But instead of an Alexander the Great or a Napoleon: someone with the force of personality and vision to cut through the bureaucratic knots and introduce a new and efficient system of meeting Cantabrians’ needs; the people of Christchurch have been forced to negotiate a bureaucratic labyrinth worthy of Franz Kafka. Instead of the smooth hum of public agencies working together, we hear the loud metallic groans of bureaucratic cogs and wheels grinding against one another.

And the only visible remedy to the sloth and inefficiency of the Earthquake Commission, Environment Canterbury, the Christchurch City Council, CERA and the numerous government authorities, agencies, ministries and departments, has been to take one’s grievance to The Press or Campbell Live.

“The Rest of New Zealand” has not been impressed. 

AND SO WE COME to the third massive failure: the failure of leadership. Viewed from afar, Christchurch appears to have at least three bosses: one elected, one appointed and one imposed. But who of these three: the Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker; the CEO of CERA, Roger Sutton; or, the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee – is really in charge?

That the question can even be posed reveals the scale of the problem.

From afar, only Mayor Parker seems seized of a vision for his city’s re-birth, and his council’s visionary “Share an Idea” campaign about the shape of Christchurch’s new heart the only truly inspirational effort “The Rest of New Zealand” has witnessed – apart, of course, from the sheer, day-to-day heroism of ordinary Cantabrians themselves.

Over the next twelve months the people of Christchurch deserve more – and better.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 August 2011.


Anonymous said...

Given the overwhelming desire for a human scale rebuild in the CBD why is Sir Richard Lease saying:
"Questioned about the proposed seven-storey CBD height limit, Leese said in Manchester they had no height restrictions, opting to assess each project on its merits.

"Plans ought to open up opportunities rather than close down opportunities,"


"Christchurch needed bold architecture that would polarise residents.

"They're Marmite buildings: you either love them or hate them, and I think Marmite buildings are good for a city."

Leese was among many politicians, city planners and architectural experts who shared their experiences as part of the consultation process for the draft central-city plan. "

CORE submission:
"Owners warn against height limits on buildings which will suppress land values. The height of buildings should be limited by the business case for them and funding. Taller buildings require larger budgets which can provide better engineering solutions and outcomes. It’s not about height but about quality engineering; look at San Francisco, Kobe etc."

Anonymous said...


Since New Zealanders have spent the last 30 years or so voting for governments that have denigrated government intervention, it is no surprise that when government intervention is needed, the capacity for effective intervention is much lessened.

We have only ourselves to blame.

Allie said...

As a resident of Christchurch (though not one who has to cope with the worst of it), I feel slightly more kindly disposed to CERA, etc, than you seem to. Maybe it's because as a resident of Christchurch I see almost every day the realities of dealing with an overwhelmingly messy situation. And so I really can't bring myself to get all anti-National on this one, although it's tempting.

As for Bob Parker, etc., certainly he puts a glossiness on the situation... which I am inclined to distrust.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Bob parker is on the pig's back. No-one else will be electable in Christcurch till he pops his clogs.

Philoff said...

Chris, I can understand why Parker looks effective from afar and why Share an Idea looks inspiring, but Parker is all about appearances. He knows how things look on camera and in the papers.

What came out of Share an Idea was, however good, entirely predictable. It was not real consultation, just the appearance of it. The people who turned up at CBS Arena were almost entirely white and middle class (not a Waitakere/Linwood man in sight, even).

Word has it that the government is increasingly frustrated with Parker and his mate the CEO, for their abuse of the democratic process and their mutual ineptitude. There's a strong rumour they were summoned up to Wellington for a bollocking a couple of weeks ago.

If what came out of Share an Idea is what we get, then I will (anonymously) eat my hat. With Brownlee and the government already working to dampen expectations, and their unwillingness to spend money helping people except the very rich, I am not very optimistic.

The only real hope is a change in government, but I doubt very much that will happen until 2014, but by then Christchurch will have suffered an even worse man-made disaster - with by-then Sir Robert Parker still looking good from afar, but from afar only.

Michael said...

Why is it that when disaster strikes, be it economic or geophysical, we always have to bail out the big boys? Insurance companies, banks, corporations. Because they are 'too big to let them fail'? Perhaps that in itself is a problem. These entities which are supposed to be the font of all blessing, jobs and wealth for all, are unable even to bless themselves. Let the government and the earthquake commission help Cantabrians, but let not that relieve insurance companies of their due. Times like these are why we are enslaved to them by tribute our whole lives long. It is for these days they are born. And those who most embrace 'the market' seem most willing to rush in and ameliorate its excesses. Like the insurance companies who sold it too cheap, trumping the market, without the backup to make good their pledge. The free market is painted as some great evolutionary process, a survival of the fittest, like nature giving rise to efficient and beautiful forms. But these market entities appear far from sound. Nature also is full of tragedy. Daily its beautiful creatures tear each other limb from limb, and when disaster strikes, the water hole dries, the plain is littered with skeletons. That is not how we would wish our society. Perhaps we should 'cut out the middleman', let government direct wealth to the people, and let insurance companies and the like stand or fall on their own clay feet.

Anonymous said...

I see the the anti planning (means no rules) meme is going viral in Constables Britain. The public are behind the state of play here.