Abolish The Dole For Real Jobs Rebuilding Christchurch

- John Minto

The first weeks after the Christchurch earthquake inevitably focused on rescuing survivors then recovering bodies. The focus is now on the extent of the rebuild and how it is to be undertaken and paid for. The news that the best current Earthquake Commission estimate says 10,000 Christchurch houses will have to be demolished is a sobering assessment of the catastrophe which has hit our second largest city. Alongside homes is extensive work rebuilding the key infrastructure of roading, bridges, electrical networks, water, and wastewater services. The cost may be around $15 billion with the Government directly contributing at least $5 billion in the short term.

The scale of the task is daunting but in the small world of political ideas there is nothing that grasps the enormity of the job or a vision to get it done in a way which seizes the long term opportunities the country can gain along the way. Instead we have the usual pathetic squabbling as National and Labour dance around each other taunting and bickering. They try to convince us they are as different as black and white but they are both the same shade of shabby grey. Their plans involve handing vast sums to the private sector to contract and subcontract work as each layer clips the ticket down to the poorly paid skilled and semi-skilled workers who will do the actual work. Meanwhile we have had the spectacle of a visit by Prince William, for the March memorial service with the associated media circus (I was pleased at least one Christchurch resident was unimpressed. She said on TV he shouldn’t bother coming unless he brings a shovel and does some real work. Needless to say he didn’t do any shovelling).

A Public Infrastructure Project

So, how should the rebuilding of this city be organised and funded? How can we ensure we get the best from the huge State investment needed? Luckily New Zealand history has the answer. Past generations tackled major infrastructure tasks such as roads, bridges, dams, sewage treatment plants etc as publicly organised, publicly funded and publicly built with enormous spin-off benefits to the community along the way. People my age will remember the Ministry of Works which was tasked with the biggest public projects the country has seen and which has a proud legacy. Whenever you flick a switch, drive most intercity roads and flush the toilet you should thank the likes of the MOW which made it possible.

So what advantages would rebuilding Christchurch have as a public infrastructure project? Here are a couple. Firstly we could abolish the dole and use that money to employ everyone in a real job doing real work for real pay. Yes upskilling and retraining would be necessary for many but our public polytechs in Christchurch could easily extend such things as apprenticeship training alongside the real work done. This is the way New Zealand used to develop a skilled workforce. Much maligned (by business and politicians) public bodies such as New Zealand Railways developed generations of electricians, fitters and turners, welders, plumbers, painters and builders etc The slashing of apprenticeships by National in the 1990s left a void we have yet to fill.

In National’s brave new world training was to be done by employers on the job and paid for by businesses through Industry Training Organisations. It never happened. The promised industry funding never materialised. Taxpayers fund this training now as we have always done. So let’s get our money’s worth and do the job properly for the benefit of New Zealand rather than the narrow benefits of private sector employers. Once the Christchurch rebuild is over we will have an extensive pool of trained and skilled workers who can take their newly acquired skills around the country.

No More Scrapheap

Secondly a public rebuild would also drop poverty rates significantly in Christchurch and end the social alienation that goes with it. Remember that the dole is essentially what our ruling elites are prepared to pay to prevent the Government providing jobs for everyone. The private sector likes having a scrapheap for those they don’t need because it helps keep downward pressure on wages. Forget that. People matter more than corporate profitability and Christchurch could become the first no-dole, all-working city in the country. There’s no reason why solo parents could not be part of this public initiative. Decent childcare provision alongside the rebuild would release further funding for real jobs and real skill development. Is that the heart palpitations of ACT Party members I can hear? Yes we need a PIRC - Public Infrastructure Rebuild Committee – established and funded to get underway the biggest job this country has ever faced. There is much to be done. Let’s make a start.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2008.

Email cafca@chch.planet.org.nz

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